Y2K fever to heat up in '99
by Nancy Weil
(IDG) -- No one truly knows what will happen when the year 2000 computer glitch strikes, but 1999 is likely to be rife with rumors and speculation about the shape the millennium bug will take. It's also safe to say that hysteria will grow as the set-in-stone deadline approaches.
Some think the peril is wildly overblown and that the new millennium will arrive unaccompanied by serious incident. Others are sounding an alarm, many of them using the Internet to voice apocalyptic concerns.
Of course, there's an acronym for the worst-case scenario: TEOTWAWKI -- The End Of The World As We Know It.
In a movement that is apparently almost exclusively occurring in the U.S., some apocalyptic groups are preparing for what they believe is the inevitable downfall of society as 2000 approaches. They are stockpiling food, water, cash, weapons and ammunition. They plan to ride out the chaos in remote locations, away from the expected urban mayhem.
That a computer bug is feeding apocalyptic fervor is both ironic and fitting. Many of the groups now springing up on the Web interpret certain Bible verses as prophecies that the forces of evil will have used technology before the final battle of Armageddon ushers in a new age.
"I think there is irony in the fact that the computer is both their chief venue of communication and propaganda and also the mother of all their fears," said Mark Potok, who edits the "Intelligence Report," a publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based nonprofit group that tracks hate groups and hate crimes.
Housing developments are being built to cater to the fearful, with Web sites acting as sales brochures to hawk them. For instance, the site for Heritage West 2000, planned for Concho, Ariz., 180 miles northeast of Phoenix, promises that "500 families of the New Millennium" will live with "total self-sufficiency and independence from outside energy sources." There, they can rely on solar and wind power to "raise healthy, self-reliant, confident and capable children in a rural setting, which fosters a return to the values that made America great. The new Golden Age can begin right here."
But before dismissing these so-called survivalists as wackos, consider that recent news reports across the U.S. have included interviews with software programmers and engineers who have been dealing with year 2000 problems for a while. And some of these folks also plan to head for the hills.
Consider also that the U.S. government is advising that citizens take some of the same sorts of precautions for the millennium's arrival as they would for an impending blizzard or hurricane.
"We don't have a set of formal recommendations," said Don Meyer, spokesman for the U.S. Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Problem, which is headed by Utah Republican Bob Bennett. "What Sen. Bennett has been saying publicly is that it wouldn't hurt to have a few days of food on hand, a little bit of cash."
The committee aims to be "a repository of truthful and accurate information," dispelling rumors of mass shortages of basic necessities and allaying fears about widespread disruptions in utilities, telecommunications and banking, for instance.
But the committee's scope is limited. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- the same entity that reacts to natural disasters -- is charged with developing a national contingency plan if civil unrest occurs. Meyer said FEMA is "a bit behind" in planning, so the committee is attempting to spread a calming message.
"A lot of things, I think, would have to go wrong in order for this widespread civil unrest to become a reality," Meyer said. He added that barring a "prolonged" power outage in a major metropolitan area, not much mayhem is expected.
The committee has conducted hearings to examine how various industry segments are reacting and said it is confident that widespread power grid outages or banking failures won't occur. "That doesn't mollify our fears that a plan should be in place," he said.
The government's decision to create such a plan is in itself seen by some as evidence that chaos will occur. Others caution that gloom-and-doom prophecies will be self-fulfilling. To some degree, that's happening already, as seen in specialty retail markets.
U.S. sales of pricey models of Swiss Katadyne water filters have doubled in the past few months, and all filters made by the company are on back order at the distributor, Suunto USA, said Vana Huynh customer service manager.
Many of those who order say they are buying the filters because of worries about how the year 2000 bug will affect water purification, Huynh said.
Given "the volume of our sales, they are unable to keep up with production," Huynh said. "We're just getting orders in every day, and it's tremendous."
Katadyne's most popular filter in the past was a lightweight pocket model for backpackers, but demand has surged for all of the company's products, including the $1,143 Expedition Filter, designed for heavy-duty use.
The same thing is happening at Recreational Equipment Inc. in Reading, Mass., which has seen a surge in purchases of water filters, iodine tablets, lanterns, stoves, fuel and dehydrated food.
"Every other day I'll run into someone who's talking about it," -- "it" being the year 2000 -- said Bruce Hamilton, a sales associate at the store. "They seem to be a little offbeat, to put it politely."
Dehydrated food is flying off the shelves, with customers paying $5.50 for shiny pouches of spaghetti marinara with mushrooms or $4.30 for turkey tetrazzini. "It's hard for us to keep it on the shelf," Hamilton said. "One customer wanted to buy $500 worth of dehydrated food."
As some people start stockpiling supplies through 1999, that will fuel panic, some observers say. "I do believe there will be some runs on banks," said Michael Harden, president and chief executive officer of Century Technology Services Inc. in McLean, Va. The company makes software and offers services to help inventory and track year 2000 compliance.
The rush to remove cash from some banks could start as soon as late next summer, and "whether that bank is compliant enough probably won't matter," Harden said.
"I believe it's too early to understand the full scope of what's going to happen," he said. "I personally think it's going to be bad. I think it depends on where you live. Some places may be without power. Others may be fine .... If the breakdowns that occur in the infrastructure of the country are significant, it will open up a lot of opportunities for all kinds of fringe elements to do some rather drastic things."
On the other end of the opinion spectrum is Dave Wessel, designer and developer of year 2000 software from Tominy Inc. in Cincinnati. While he said "it's much, much, much too early to tell" what will happen, Wessel also said there's so much hard work going on to fix the year 2000 problem that major disaster will be averted.
"I don't believe we're going to have a catastrophe," he said. "I think we're going to have some inconveniences. I think we're going to have some problems, and they might last for six months."
Companies have gotten into gear to work on the problem. They also are increasingly concerned about their suppliers' readiness. Sun Microsystems Inc., for example, sent letters demanding proof of year 2000 compliance to someone whose only work for the company has been to write material for the marketing department, according to the contractor, who requested anonymity.
The U.S. government isn't waiting to see if Jan. 1, 2000, passes without consequence, according to the latest issue of "Intelligence Report." The issue includes an interview with an FBI antiterrorism expert who said the agency is deeply concerned that the threat of domestic terrorism will escalate as the unyielding deadline approaches.
"It is important to stress, however, that the Y2K problem is not a technical issue alone. World publics must be adequately informed not only about the scale and importance of the problem, but also about its nature so that the inevitable disruptions that will occur sometime, somewhere, in the first days of the year 2000 do not trigger worldwide trepidation, or even panic," wrote Jonathan Spalter, chairman of President Bill Clinton's Council on the Year 2000 conversion working group on international public diplomacy.
Awareness among government leaders of a siege mentality was apparent at a recent UN meeting on the year 2000 bug. Experts from more than 130 countries gathered at UN headquarters in New York to share information and discuss emergency response plans.
One topic they touched on was what central banks should do about the anticipated rush on cash that could cause a liquid capital shortage. The solution emerging from a U.S. Federal Reserve Board presentation? Print more money.
The UN meeting also focused on concerns that defense systems will go haywire (see story).
"Let me put to rest the rumor that missiles are going to be flying everywhere by accident," said John Koskinen, President Clinton's year 2000 czar. Missiles launch only through human intervention, and if anything goes wrong, defense systems are always turned off by default, Koskinen added.
The U.S. government is said to be far ahead of other nations in correcting the year 2000 bug in its systems, although a quarterly report card consistently finds some agencies and bureaus seriously lagging. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, whose antiquated computer systems do little to inspire confidence anyway, has been particularly targeted as needing to do serious work to handle the glitch. Despite that, Koskinen has pledged to be on an airplane as the millennium rolls in. Bennett, chairman of the Senate committee charged with disseminating accurate information, isn't quite so confident.
"He won't be heading for the hills," committee spokesman Meyer said. "But on the other hand, he won't be doing what Koskinen said he's going to do. He won't be in the seat next to him."
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