Citizens Prepare Small-Town Life for Impact of Millennium Bug

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LOWELL, Mass. -- The early-morning crowd seated at a table in the Owl Diner looks like any group of friends chatting over coffee before work. But this conversation isn't about new babies or last night's game. It's the regular Thursday morning meeting to discuss what may loom when the 'millennium bug' arrives.

Skeptical that government or industry have all the answers for the problems expected to arise when the nation's computer calendars turn 2000, a growing number of citizens and communities are bracing for the fallout.

Experts say the disruptions could range from crashing ATM machines to power blackouts, all because of a glitch that prevents computers from recognizing dates after 1999.

'It's not just a bank problem. It's not just a business problem or a government problem. It's a community problem,' said Ian Wells, a computer software engineer, starting the conversation among the eight who turned up at the diner at 7 a.m. 'Most of us didn't realize how dependent we are on smooth-working software.'

After months of calls for national leadership on the question, President Clinton recently announced a 'national campaign for year 2000 solutions.' The president acknowledged there are 'gaping holes' in government's and industry's response to the millennium bug, which he said 'could affect electric power, phone service, air travel, major governmental service' and other essential functions.

Some experts are optimistic. They expect little more than some everyday inconveniences like rejected credit card transactions, flight delays at airports or scattered power outages. But others see a potential for multiple disasters, including shortages of food and drinking water, due to breakdowns in computerized systems of distribution.

The darkest scenarios of social chaos and unrest have spurred a new movement of survivalists who are stocking up on dried food and bottled water in remote rural hideaways.

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