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.
'All you hear about is the survivalist nuts,' said Paloma O'Riley, who organized the Cassandra Project, an Internet-based network that promotes awareness of the millennium bug, also known as the 'Year 2000 problem' or 'Y2K.'
But the survivalists, who have roused media interest recently, are greatly outnumbered by others who have chosen to stay put and look for solutions in their communities, said O'Riley.
At least 50 of these Y2K 'community preparedness' groups have sprung up across the United States, according to a fresh tally by the Cassandra Project, an all-volunteer group that O'Riley runs full time from her home in Louisville, Colo.
'It's a community concern because neither business nor government can resolve the problem in time for the year 2000,' she said. 'They're not getting the job done, and so we're going to have to take some personal responsibility.'
O'Riley predicts an 'explosion' of citizen interest in Y2K and pointed out that visits by computer users to the project's web site are running at more than 100,000 a week.
At the grassroots level, efforts vary depending on where the computer bug is most likely to strike in a given community (and figuring that out is a heavy task in itself). Looking into measures that resemble the contingency planning for a natural disaster, some Y2K activists are investigating backup sources of electricity and water distribution.
But even the more active groups -- O'Riley cites just a handful including the one here in Lowell -- are at a fledgling stage.
'Most people believe that if it's this big, somebody at the top must be doing something about it,' said Lowell resident Wells, whose day job is with Hewlett-Packard Co. 'They think somebody else is fixing it.'
Cynthia Beal, owner of the Red Barn Natural Grocery in Eugene, Ore., said she has just started getting together with neighbors at a bakery in nearby Veneta on Saturday afternoons to 'chew on goodies and discuss small-town Y2K.' She said, 'There's not a lot being done. There's a very smallnumber of people who are talking to a lot of other people. But it's still not in the being-fixed stage.'
This millennial anxiety has its genesis in the early computer age, when programmers preserved once-precious memory by using only two digits to signify the year in a date. So in millions of computers around the world, 1985 appears as 85, and 1999 as 99.
In the year 2000, those computer clocks will roll over to 00 and read the new year as 1900. That could confound computers and many services that rely on computers. Fixing the flaw involves scanning billions of lines of software code, a colossal undertaking in both the private and public sectors. (The quandary extends beyond software to any microchips embedded with two-digit codes.)
Many experts believe it is too late to get the job done by the end of next year. Speaking at the National Press Club on July 15, Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) said there is a simple way to solve the problem -- 'start in 1994.'
Bennett, who heads the new Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, said he thinks water systems will hold up in 'most municipalities,' but not all. He said the nation's power grid will work but that there will be 'regional blackouts.'
He said he is worried about medical machines in hospitals and also raised the specter of riots in counties that fail to deliver welfare checks.
In the view of author and futurist Robert Theobald, the solution is to think locally -- in fact, very locally.
'We need to build community resiliency, so that if things go wrong, people will behave like they would in a climate catastrophe, like an ice storm or a tornado, where we gather around our neighbors and work with them,' said Theobald, 'rather than feeling that this has been imposed on us by some faceless, technological monster and that we should get angry about it.'
Theobald, who lives in Spokane, Wash., said he sees a danger of panic or a retreat into 'individual survivalist tactics.' At the same time, he said a healthy awareness of Y2K could also lead people back to the 'subneighborhood level, the four-block level, where everybody knows everybody, and we know who has propane, who has coal fires. And in the event of power outages, we will know what houses we could go to.'
The community approach is the one Wells and his neighbors are trying to take in Lowell, which has a population of nearly 100,000. For months, the Y2K volunteer has been speaking one-on-one with political and business leaders, to church and neighborhood groups, and recently to a wider audience through his five-minute local radio spot on Sunday mornings.
'Nobody knows exactly what's going to happen in the year 2000. But it's very clear that there will be disruptions, and some communities will do better than others,' Wells said in an interview. He said he learned something about the value of disaster planning when he and his son, now 15, went to help out during the Mississippi River floods in 1993.
Among other priorities, the Lowell Y2K Project has its eye on the system of canals and waterways that once powered the region's cotton mills at the dawn of America's Industrial Revolution. Those mill buildings have been preserved as museums and offices for high-tech firms, among other businesses. But the canals can still produce energy that some people looking at the problem would like to tap if the power goes out in 2000.
'We're trying to encourage a path between complacency and panic,' Wells interjected in the diner conversation recently when someone began speculating about a 'worldwide financial meltdown' from the millennium bug.
'If we were the only people worrying about this, there would be a catastrophe,' he said. 'But we're not the only ones.'
Ian Wells, activist, Lowell Y2K project, Lowell, Mass., 978-452-4996; web site: lowellonline.org/bna/y2k.
Paloma O'Riley, organizer, The Cassandra Project for Community Action, Louisville, Colo., 303-664-5227; web site: millennia-bcs.com.
Cynthia Beal, owner, Red Barn Natural Grocery, Eugene, Ore. Robert Theobald, futurist, Spokane, Wash., 509-835-3569.
Mary Jane Collipriest, press secretary for Sen. Robert Bennett, Washington, D.C., 202-224-5444. The Year 2000 Information Center web site: www.year2000.com. Year 2000 National Education Task Force, 800-289-2646; web site: http://www.y2knet.com. Rogue Valley y2k Task Force, Medford, Ore., 541-608-9265; web site: www.rv-y2k.org. 'AWAKENING: The Upside of Y2K,' edited by Judy Laddon, Tom Atlee and Larry Shook (The Printed Word, 1998).
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