ORLANDO, Fla. - The old woman walked into a Leesburg, Fla., gun shop two months ago and explained her situation.
She was 80-something and wore the scars of the Great Depression. It had crippled her family, she told store owner Gordon Schorer, wiping out their savings in a bank failure. Now, near the end of her life, she worried the U.S. was headed down the same road, and she wasn't going to make that trip - not without a fight.
She had stockpiled more than a year's worth of food, put most of her money in precious metals and today was looking for a little insurance.
"She bought $8,000 of guns and ammo," Schorer said. "She's afraid of the future. Afraid she could lose everything."
As bad as the economy is, there are people who fear it is going to get worse - much, much worse.
Fueled by a potent mix of facts, fiction and hyperbole, these economic doomsday-ers envision a financial apocalypse that will render money worthless and normal commerce impossible.
So some are stocking up and making contingency plans: buying weapons, planting gardens and investing in gold and silver. Others are feeding that anxiety, warning that if society is about to go off the rails, the prudent citizen should be prepared to jump clear of the wreckage.
"There's a natural feeling that things like this can't happen in America," said Phil Russo, a Central Florida radio talk-show host who helped organize April's Tax Day protest in downtown Orlando. "But they can, and people just want to be ready for it."
Some of those people turned out for the Orlando protest and dozens like it across the country. Though billed as a rally against high taxes and wasteful spending, the events became magnets for activists of all kinds, including those who believe an economic Armageddon is brewing.
"People I know are getting out of the stock market and putting it (their money) in gold," said Bill Landes, a Haines City resident who attended the rally. "They know there's a problem coming."
The question is, "How big a problem?"
No one doubts that the recession will drag into next year. And unemployment in Florida and elsewhere will likely hit double digits. But most economists view the doomsday predictions as high drama - financial ghost stories trotted out when times get tough.
"Y2K, 9-11, swine flu, et cetera, all have been predicted to precipitate the great collapse," said Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida. "Sensationalism sells whether it is accurate or not."
Prophets of doom have always existed, but today their voices are easier to hear because of the Internet and talk radio. Economic survivalists, also called "preppers," can communicate instantly with like-minded individuals, and dozens of Web sites are dedicated to the coming disaster.
The Florida Preppers Network offers advice on gardening and lists the 100 items likely to go first in a panic. A few companies sell "survival seeds" to let you grow a "crisis garden" to feed your family when chaos takes hold. Their pitch is anything but subtle:
"As the meltdown progresses, one of the first things to be affected will be our nation's food supply. ... If you don't have the ability to grow your own food next year, your life may be in danger."
But for $150 (marked down from $297) you can buy enough seeds to grow an acre of 22 different vegetables to save your family. The seed sellers advertise on talk radio, popping up locally on the Glenn Beck Program. He has warned for months of a financial implosion.
In February, his TV show presented a series of worst-case scenarios, including economic collapse. One guest described heavily armed gangs roaming city streets by 2014. Anyone with money would be a target for kidnapping.
Throughout the show, Beck insisted his guests were not predicting what will happen, only what could.
"People aren't willing to look at the unspeakable," he said. "People don't understand it. This is what worries me."
That's a common trait among apocalyptic thinkers and survivalists, said Richard Mitchell, a sociologist who has studied the phenomenon for 20 years. They alone see trouble coming and put themselves at the center of the story. They alone know how to cope and build a narrative highlighting their insight.
"It's ritual drama," Mitchell said. "You control the action, and you're there to teach others how to live."
Drama or not, the predictions have sparked an increase in vegetable gardening, gun sales and food stockpiling.
Harry Weyandt has seen business climb as the economy sank. He runs Nitro-Pak.com, an emergency-supplies dealer selling everything from first-aid kits to $4,200 packs of freeze-dried foods.
Orders, he said, "went crazy" when Wall Street flopped and recently were running two to three times higher than normal. But though he worries about "serious inflation," Weyandt says, "I don't think there will be a problem buying food."
"Mama Bear" of the Florida Preppers Network would disagree. In March, she warned fellow Floridians that time was running out.
"I wish I could make everyone who is reading this realize how important it is to get your food and emergency supplies for your family ready," she wrote on the network's blog. "There is such a large calamity that is coming, and most people of like minds think it is going to happen soon."
(c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.