Notes From A Queer Engineer: Bunker Logistics on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”

Notes From A Queer Engineer_Rory Midhani_640
Header by Rory Midhani
Feature Image via Slate.

Season two of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is live, dammit, and I have bunkers on the brain. No, I haven’t yet managed to binge my way through all 12 new episodes. But ever since the trailer was released last month, I’ve found myself wondering A.) whether this season will improve on the show’s standing hit-or-miss record on race, and B.) what are the logistics involved in keeping an apocalyptic underground bunker operational for 15 years? While the outcome of the first remains to be seen, I do have some thoughts on bunker logistics in the meantime.

Via Slate: "How Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Production Designers Dreamed Up That Apocalyptic Bunker."

Image via Slate.

Did you know that there’s an entire doomsday bunker industry? From multi-acre, mountain-esconced government fortresses, to small, abandoned backyard bunkers with walls as bright as Kimmy’s sweaters, YouTube is a treasure trove of information for anyone with a whit or curiosity about reinforced emergency shelters. As far as I can tell, bunker owners on the internet mainly consist of annoying white men with an excess of money and seemingly boundless enthusiasm for gun stockpiling, but there are offputting “prepper” women out there, too! And even some homesteader types I found moderately relatable. Alaska Granny’s carefully labeled stockpile of tea and brown sugar actually had me daydreaming about living in the woods with all you weirdos:

Obviously I would never condone kidnapping 8th graders or forcing captives to live underground, as Durnsville’s worst wedding DJ did. I don’t believe in paranoia as a virtue, and I find most prepper rhetoric to be alarmist and rebarbative. But the idea of someday saying “fuck it” to society and living off-the-grid? Sure. Who doesn’t occasionally daydream about that?

When I think about life underground, I find myself nerdily enthralled with the idea of handling the logistics for such a huge endeavor. In my first engineering job out of college, I worked as a simulation analyst for a military contractor. I built mathematical models of tanks and helicopters, ran them through a variety of scenarios, and gave recommendations to the U.S. Marine Corps and Army on how to optimize their inventory. How many spare tires do 15 Cougar style MRAPs need to remain fully operational at a low combat desert location for 30 days? How many wiper blades? These are the type of questions my team and I advised on.

In Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne’s bunker on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, we know the wannabe cult leader had access to the outside world — enough to become a fan of The Apprentice, at the very least. Considering that he, Kimmy, and three other captive women were in the bunker for 15 years, I have to assume the Reverend also had access to some sort of supply chain. Can you imagine how much food five people would need over 15 years? How much toilet paper? More than would fit inside the bunker we saw.

Probably something more like this. Image via shutterstock.

Probably something more like this. Image via Shutterstock.

In my job as a military contractor, we plotted out historical failure data so that we could describe the patterns we saw using probability distributions such as Weibull curves to predict future performance. None of that will be necessary here! For one thing, this is a fictional bunker with no historical data available. But for another thing, an isolated, underground bunker is built precisely to maintain a stable environment. Conditions won’t be changing all that much. So for the most part, simple, back-of-the-napkin estimates will do just fine in this case. And the general process remains the same: research, set a baseline, “sense check” the numbers, and start making adjustments to better match the situation you’re trying to model.

For example, in planning for period-related products, a quick internet search tells me that on average, American women purchase 111 maxi pads and 66 tampons per year. I’m #TeamCup, personally, but a quick “sense check” of those numbers (divide by 12 to get 9ish pads and 6ish tampons per month — okay, fine) indicates that number is at least closer to the right answer than that time NASA allocated Sally Ride 100 tampons for a 7 day trip! So let’s multiply by 15 (for the number of years in a bunker) and 4 (for Kimmy, Cyndee, Gretchen and Donna). This lands us somewhere in the neighborhood of 6660 pads and 3960 tampons — about eight bulk cases of tampons (59.2 pounds of tampons, taking up ~6.5 cubic feet) and 27 bulk cases of sanitary napkins (318.6 pounds of pads, taking up ~61 cubic feet). If the bunker were to stock these items, it would require either a significant amount of storage space, or (more likely) numerous covert shopping trips by the Reverend.


Or let’s take a look at water! According to the World Health Organization, an individual needs between 2.5 and 3L of water per day for drinking. Including water needs for basic hygiene practices and basic cooking needs, they estimate 7.5 to 15L per day per person for survival in emergency situations. With five people living in the bunker (including the Reverend), this comes out to 262.5 – 525L of clean water per week. Picturing that water being stored in standard office water coolers, that’s between 14 to 28 of the usual blue plastic five gallon tanks each week. Even with some sort of closed-loop water treatment system in place (which there would almost have to be, right?), it’s quite the operation!

Okay, last example. In a recent interview, Ellie Kemper (who plays Kimmy Schmidt) said that her “dream bunker food” would be Levain chocolate chip cookies with nuts. How many would she need to last 15 years? Well, those cookies come in at 563 calories each, so to get up around 2000 calories, let’s say she has her cookie with a glass of whole milk for breakfast, again at lunch, and to mix things up at dinner, she has the milk, half a cookie, and a banana. Over one week, she would consume seven bananas, 21 cups of milk, and 17 and a half cookies; over the course of 15 years, she would consume 5475 bananas, 16425 cups of milk, and 13687 and a half cookies. Which is too many cookies. I do not recommend this. (But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to survive. After all, females are strong as hell.)

Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.

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Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 210 articles for us.


  1. Laura! This is amazing!

    I don’t know why I’m kinda into bunkers (the heart wants what it wants) but did you see 10 Cloverfield Lane? I found myself wondering a LOT about the feasibility of that bunker (when I wasn’t being distracted by, uh, terror).

    • @queergirl @napkined Oh my godddd. I was NOT prepared for where that movie took me.

      I don’t understand why Howard took the contractor guy in?? It didn’t seem like he liked him at all, and it meant another human being using up resources.

      • Wow Laura you watched it already? Well done.

        It seemed like it was all about appearances for the older man. Maybe he took the younger dude in just because when the dude asked, there was an opportunity for him to paint himself as the good guy in his own script — to write benevolence into his character, which in his heart, he knew was far from benevolent. Also maybe he had a fantasy of being top dog among the males in the bunker — that his blundering handyman would be no match for the capable older man with the power and the gun, when it came to vying for the affections of the woman? (Lol sorry I don’t know any of their names). Whatever the reason, it was a decision he clearly regretted…

        Anyway I loved so many things about it! I loved that it was basically like three kinds of scary movie. And a bunch of other stuff I want to say but this is a movie that absolutely cannot be spoiled!!

        What I will say is this: the best scary movie makers (and even action movie makers) know that just because we now CAN show everything, it doesn’t mean we should. They know that tight, cloying psychological suspense is what made horror movies so great in the old days, it’s what made the twilight zone so successful (in its best episodes). They knew how to release the tension in the right bursts of humor in the everyday dialogue, humor that was really sparing because they knew that both the audience and the characters would be desperate for that little release, so they wouldn’t give us too much. And when the action sequences did come, they were perfect, releasing and building tension in their own ways and properly setting up the main character for her hero’s journey.

        Lol I think I need to go home and watch it again now!

        Also though I just kind of want to know, like, would that air filtration system actually work? Was there space in that pantry for the amount of food he referred to? Did he think to stock tampons? Etc :)

        • @queergirl Yeah, that seems plausible. And the guy certainly seemed to like being in control of other people… which requires having other people around.

          And I feel rather suspicious about the viability of that bunker design! Who would put the reset switch in such in inaccessible location… And if the point is protection, why include glass on an outside-facing wall?! That’s just poor planning.

          I agree that this movie shouldn’t be spoiled, though, so I’ll stop here. Thank you for bringing it up! I’m really glad I watched it!

          • UGH LITERALLY EVERY TURN!!!!!! i want to talk about the spoilers cause that’s like THE MAIN DEAL but also i get that we shouldn’t….but now i feel like i have so many bunker opinions

  2. I love this, I’ve heard about the Prepper thing because I work at costco, and we’ll sell you a 5 gallon bucket of wheat if that’s your thing, but we mostly get mormons buying stuff for power outages out my way, nobody at the bunker level. I’m so happy you did the math on this one! :D

    • I wouldn’t even know what to do with a single gallon of wheat. #InadequatelyPrepared

    • My first thought when I saw bunkers was Costco! I was surprised to see so much survivalist gear on their website the first time I looked at it some years back.

  3. This sort of theoretical prep is my absolute favourite thing. Me and my friends did a lot while ‘revising’ for my finals. One of my saddest moments was when i realised that during the zombie apocalypse I would have to learn how to synthesise my immunosuppresants. And then live indefinitely without blood tests hoping the same dose remains effective. Chronic illnesses suck.

    • Ok that’s so much more complex than my “what if my glasses break” or my “I need to loot opticians for contacts” plan. I figured I’d just die fast in the zombie apocalypse. Once I was out of options I wouldn’t be able to see the zombies coming, given that I can just about see the end of my nose without lenses. It’d be that or I’d lose my inhaler…

    • Oh wow. The ultimate DIY.

      I hope it doesn’t come to this, but I feel like you’d at least have a slightly better shot at survival having considered this?

      May zombies never eat your wonderful brain, friend.

    • My thoughts on an airplane ride:
      “If we crash in the ocean and get stranded on a tropical island, I would have to stop my antidepressants. How would I keep my sanity on a desert island without my meds?”

      On the other hand, I have experience working in the pharmaceutical industry as an organic chemist. So I suppose that could come in handy in a zombie apocalypse if I have the right resources…

  4. Thank you for this gift. It was a great excuse to talk survival and logistics whilst also talking about an awesome show.
    When you assume he had access to the supply chain it’s probably worth mentioning that he did have an argument with a pizza guy at one point so he definitely gets out of the bunker from time to time :p
    I literally just binged season 1 and half of season 2 in the past 2 days so I’ve got it on the brain.

  5. As a native Nebraskan, even if that was just Omaha, I’m so trained to be bunker-friendly just from living in Tornado Alley. Omaha residents in general were for years before that too throughout the Cold War, because SAC Offutt AFB was based there too, and it was where the US Air Force based most of its aircraft based nuclear capability before NORAD/Cheyenne Mountain was built.

    Because of this, I tend to think of bunkers from that sort of perspective, and maintain more of a fascination from that, which I think is different from the ammosexual trend towards it.

    • So interesting! And yeah, living in Tornado Alley would make bunker-ownership a MUCH more practical option to consider.

    • 100% agree.

      If anyone wanted to lure me into their bunker, pretty much the only thing they would need to do is stock Thin Mints and Tagalongs.

  6. Thank you for this glorious research and for doing the Maths. I will now lift the trapdoor to the crawl space under my living room, and see if it is big enough -6.5 cubic feet- for 15 years worth of tampons…because where else am I going to store them?

    • I can think of no better use for a trapdoor-protected crawl space in your living room.

  7. I love zombie apocalypse stuff. I once tried a pole dancing class (for fitness duh) and I found out I had less upper body strength than the 65 year old first timer. So all I can think of now is how my chubby Italian arms will make me zombie food (sigh)?

    • Surely agility would be of greater importance than upper body strength in a zombie apocalypse situation, though? I don’t think you’re necessarily doomed based on that.

    • Aw hon you just need to pick a weapon that’ll give you the most bang for your buck.

      Like a stone pestle to use like a kubotan, a ball peen hammer (use the ball side)a kukri knife (one with the knotches to keep the handle from getting slippery) or a ball headed war club, one the ones with a spike or just a bird headed one would be the best I think.

      Oh dear I think I need like a citations page for a normal person who doesn’t study weapons like kids study dinosaurs.

      A kuotan is a super dense hard hand held thing you smash people in the face with that’s been co-opted by american style self defense martial arts into a pointy monstrosity.

      This is kukri more traditional style knife:

      The way the blade is leveraged it is completely possible to decapitate humans with the force it adds, but for you it will effectively reach the brain with ease.

      This is a ball headed warclub

      specifially an Ojibwe one I think, but they weren’t the only culture to do ballheaded clubs

      This is one with a spike

      and the Met doesn’t know which culture it specifically came from, just says “Western Great Lake” what ever that means.

      See you won’t necessarily be zombie food based on your upper body strength, but your agility, wits and weapons.
      Also note when choosing a weapon for an apocalyptic situation whether it will a) need sharpening. or b)if it’s something you have the skill to repair/remake/replace if it breaks.
      Swords look cool but how many people know what novaculite is and how to harvest it to make a whetsone?
      Blunt force weapons is where the long term is at.

      • Wow Lex! That’s the best reply ever! I would hate to kill anything even a zombie but I’ll do what I must when it comes down to it. Now I know?

        • You’re welcome. >w<
          I'm very involved when I comes to tools of smash and people who are lead to believe they must be burly strong strong to effectively smash, which is not true.

  8. This was really fascinating!

    I’m still convinced I’d be the first to die in an actual apocalyptic scenario though.

  9. Never watched the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt but the math section I’m working on (for the last math class I will ever have to take!1!) is shockingly close to logistics based off my estimated back hack of how you got those numbers.

    Autostraddle u b invading mah math class.

      • I want to say don’t congratulate me yet. My final exam hasn’t been taken or final grade post, but fuck it I’ve dyscalculia and I MADE IT to this point without giving up or losing my damn mind. All by myself, under my own power like a boss ass bitch.

        I should or could let ya smother me in congratulatory statements.

  10. I bags being in your lifeboat (bunkers just won’t work for me) – at least the time will pass as we calculate the crap out of everything … including the crap.

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