Ovi Lalo, manager of California Surplus Mart in Hollywood, displays food… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)
The people want gas masks. Also flashlights, batteries, iodine tablets and machetes. And Ovi Lalo is their reluctant supplier.
Lalo has run California Surplus Mart in Hollywood for 34 years, and he said he always sees a bump in customers right after earthquakes and other natural disasters.
But this time, he said, customers seem more ravenous for supplies than usual. The devastating quake and tsunami in Japan have many Californians thinking they had better prepare for the Big One here, and the threat of radiation wafting across the Pacific has only heightened anxieties.
Then, too, there are the dark whispers about Saturday's super "perigee" moon, when the sphere will be the closest it has been to Earth since 1993, triggering talk in occult circles about an increased risk of temblors.
Scientists say such talk is hogwash. But the combination of quakes, a freaky big moon and the recent massive fish die-off in Redondo Beach has people such as Michael Jaworski stocking up on freeze-dried food and first-aid kits, just in case.
"Three things are lined up. Something's going to happen," said the 35-year-old Hollywood man, who was shopping Thursday with his girlfriend and neighbor. "The question is when."
Jaworski and his companions easily spent hundreds of dollars on propane stoves, knives, gas masks, first-aid kits and a portable shower, leaving the store with two duffel bags full of supplies. It was all Lalo could do not to cluck his tongue when he saw the customers walk away with gas masks.
"They're going to do whatever they feel like doing," said Lalo, who has an Israeli accent and blondish hair. "You can't tell them what to do."
He's not the only one seeing a bump in worried customers. Companies selling nuclear fallout bunkers and survival pods said they have seen an increase in inquiries after the tsunami. Home Depot is experiencing a run on supplies such as first-aid kits, batteries and masks. Online sites that sell survival kits are backed up for days.
Lalo has set up an earthquake preparedness section in the back of his store, past the ski masks, long underwear and studded belts that his Hollywood customers usually demand. He wants them to buy the pouches of water that have a shelf life of five years, the 6-inch blocks of food that contain 3,000 calories and the first-aid kits that come in red backpacks.
Some want supplies for a more forbidding future.
"I want a gas mask," said Koreatown resident David Kim, 71, who schlepped into the store carrying a gas mask that he bought after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He wanted a new one.
"You don't need a gas mask, man," Lalo said, trying to pry one from his hands. The gas masks Lalo sells are usually used for movie props. The filters expired in 1987. Customers don't seem to care.
Another gas mask seeker, George Savlokhoe, barged into the store Thursday with a muscular friend who had his father's face tattooed onto his arm. Savlokhoe said he was thinking about spending this weekend in Las Vegas so that the mountains can protect him from any potential radiation.
"We're from Russia. Chernobyl happened when we were there," Savlokhoe said. "It just depends which way the wind blows."
If disaster is averted, Savlokhoe has purchased some Japanese stocks, so he can profit from the country's rebound.
Disaster shopping, for many, is a haphazard affair.
Noelle Emerson, 25, of Eagle Rock snapped up a gas canister, a knife and a machete.
People waiting in line eyed others' baskets warily, making mental checklists to make sure they hadn't missed anything they needed.
"Light sticks. Good idea," said a woman in line after seeing a stranger grab a few. She added them to her basket already brimming with items.
Lacy Murrell wanted a hazmat suit, but Lalo doesn't sell them — or think anyone needs them. Murrell said he plans to make his own suit with a can of lead paint, a hair dryer and a rain jacket.
"I've been watching this round-the-clock since the tsunami," he said. "We may see some radiation in the not-too-distant future."
Some are going to even greater lengths. Larry Hall of Florida is selling spots in a yet unbuilt survival condo in Kansas — $900,000 for half a floor in a condominium that will go 14 stories underground. Hall said he received 368 inquiries about his condos in one day after the tsunami. Typically, he gets maybe two a day.
"Americans always overreact — they can afford to overreact," said Bret Kimmel, president of Dallas-based Military Outdoor Clothing, which has seen a huge increase in demand for gas masks and chemical suits since the tsunami.
More serene customers find the disaster craze humorous. One, who declined to give his name, said he was standing in line in Lalo's store to buy a paper hazmat suit to wear to work the next day to scare his co-workers.
Lalo said he hates watching customers buy things they won't need. But if customers want ponchos to protect themselves from radiation, or if they demand potassium iodide tablets, he knows, as a manager, he must give them what they want.
He's spent much of the week on the phone, trying to order more iodine tablets, first-aid kits and camping supplies. It's not easy to get supplies when everyone seems to want them.
"It's like pulling teeth," Lalo said.
Along with people shopping for disaster gear, Lalo still had his regular customers buying boots, jackets, wool hats and other provisions for regular life.
They included actor Colin Farrell, who was browsing the Dickies trousers aisle Thursday.
Said Farrell: "I am preparing for the disaster of getting caught in society without a pair of pants."