Rural Michigan Community Divided Over Planned Arrival of Private Disaster Relief Company

February 5, 2008

Officials in this small, job-starved, Michigan community hope disaster pays.

They’re welcoming plans by a startup company to build a $79 million center that would help people across the nation prepare for catastrophic events such as terrorist attacks and killer storms.

Sovereign Deed LLC says it will design custom survival plans — alerts, guidance, high-tech gear, food and water, even evacuations — for up to $50,000 up front plus $15,000 a year.

The company plans to build a complex at Pellston’s regional airport that would include supply warehouses, training grounds, a hangar for an eventual aircraft fleet and a communications system.

The proposal is stirring debate in Emmet County, about 270 miles north of Detroit. Skeptics wonder whether “disaster capitalism” represents a step toward a society where ability to pay will determine who gets help during emergencies.

“The image in my mind is kicking people out of the helicopter in Vietnam,” said David Dwyer of Mackinaw City, a member of an activist group campaigning to keep Sovereign Deed out.

Supporters hope the company will rescue not just disaster victims in distant cities, but their local economy. Recent plant closings have eliminated about 600 area jobs.

The company, based in suburban Chicago, says its Pellston center would hire about 40 people the first year and hundreds more if business goes well.

“This is a great opportunity for us,” said Andy Keiser, Pellston’s village president pro tem. “We want to prosper, send our kids to college and have something for them to come back to.”

Sovereign Deed promises to give satellite telephones and Global Positioning Systems to its clients, as well as packs with medications, food and water to keep customers alive for up to 14 days during a crisis. If things get chaotic enough, the company says, it could rescue some members by air, land or water and whisk them to safety.

Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, declined comment on Sovereign Deed, but said the department posts guidelines on a Web site to help families and businesses develop crisis plans. The American Civil Defense Association, a private group that charges a $36 membership fee, does likewise.

“If you had a brain in your head you could probably do about 99 percent of the things you need to do in a disaster without hiring somebody,” said Jim Carafano, a homeland security analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

But Sovereign Deed contends most Americans don’t prepare for the worst. They rely on government agencies whose incompetence and lack of resources were on display after Hurricane Katrina, said Barrett Moore, the company’s founder and CEO.

“The public has no one to turn to” when situations escalate beyond the abilities of local first responders, Moore said. “This country has no civil defense system. None. We will train and equip you so you can withstand the initial impact and survive.”

Moore said Sovereign Deed will take years to develop, but said it has solid financial backing. It announced in August it had chosen Pellston for its response center.

Emmet County, near the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, offered to lease 700 acres on the airport grounds and seek grants to improve roads and other infrastructure. The land currently generates no revenue.

The legislature in Michigan, which has the nation’s highest unemployment rate, approved a bill allowing local tax breaks for the company.

But critics say governments shouldn’t help Sovereign Deed. In letters to newspapers and Internet postings, they have denounced the company as an unproven “house of cards” founded on the idea that wealthy elites should have special protection during crises.

“It’s simply wrong to privatize what was intended to be a public service and treat some citizens as more valuable than others,” said Stephen Brede, a former reporter and member of the opposition group.

Local officials have mostly sidestepped the philosophical debate, focusing on Sovereign Deed’s potential economic payoff. “This is creating jobs without putting acid in the ground or smoke in the air,” said Jim Tamlyn, chairman of the Emmet County board.

Moore, 43, has founded seven other companies — including Triple Canopy Inc., one of the private military contractors that have drawn congressional scrutiny over shootings in Iraq. He says he left Triple Canopy in 2005 in a dispute with other partners, and insists it has no connection with Sovereign Deed.

Tamlyn and other county officials say they’ll require more information about Moore’s background and business plan before reaching any deals on the lease or tax breaks.

Andy Hayes, president of the nonprofit, pro-growth Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, said Sovereign Deed’s ultimate judge should be the free market.

“I can give you many examples where people took what sounded like a cockamamie idea and it grew legs and made money,” Hayes said.

Sovereign Deed:

Homeland Security preparedness site:

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.