'It was a good exercise in community involvement for all of us,' said Catherine Street resident Beth Haggart, adding that the group has given her a chance to get acquainted with neighbors she might not have otherwise met.
Remembering the ice storm that broke tree limbs and downed many of the region's power lines in the winter of 1997, the Burlington residents have made plans that should keep them warm if the heat and power do go out as a result of Y2K.
Together, they bought several cords of firewood that will be used to heat two homes on the street with wood stoves. Those homes will be open to the families who lose heat, said Haggart. The wood, incidentally, was stacked in the shape of a fort to make a play area for the neighborhood children.
The neighbors also plan to share the cost of repairing a nonelectric gas heater one of them owns, she said.
Rather than pooling money to buy food and supplies in bulk for the entire street, members of each household are storing what is important to them. Haggart said she will use milk jugs to store several gallons of water in her basement. Others are stocking up on cereal, toilet paper, soymilk, beans and rice.
The neighbors say they will share with one another as necessary; after normal life resumes, leftover food will go to the local community kitchen.
The seeds for this cooperation were planted when Catherine Street residents Lanny and Diane Watts received a copy of the 'Y2K Citizen's Action Guide,' published by Utne Reader.
The message of the booklet, said Lanny Watts, is to prepare for Y2K by building a strong community. So he and his wife talked to their immediate neighbors about the idea of starting a local preparation group. Together, they ordered a case of the action guides, which they distributed to people on both sides of the street. The Wattses hosted the initial group gathering at their home.
The neighbors generally meet each month. Catherine Street residents take turns hosting the Y2K meetings, which are preceded by potluck dinners. Seven or eight households are usually represented.
Changing the location of the meetings serves a practical purpose as well as a social one, Watts said. 'If something happens and you have to go into someone's house [in an emergency], you already know where the hall is and where the light switch is, that is, if the light works,' he said. 'You don't feel like a stalker. You feel like you're a friend because you've sat in their living room with them.'
No one is considered the leader of the group, Haggart said. 'We don't have any hierarchy at all,' she explained. 'It's just our neighborhood.'
Some of the group's first projects were to create a phone directory of people living on the street and to distribute a survey to find out about residents' chronic illnesses and other special needs.
Then the residents divided up the task of researching Y2K. Some questioned public utilities about their contingency plans. Others spoke with city officials. The residents of Catherine Street maintained a presence at city Y2K hearings by sending a delegate from their group.
Fred Lane recalls serving as the voice of his neighbors during a public utility meeting about Y2K. 'I had probably a half-dozen questions the group wanted me to ask, and then at the next meeting of course I reported back on what [the utility representatives] had said.'
The neighbors also share information based on their individual areas of expertise. Lane, a computer consultant, has spoken about Y2K's potential effects on personal computers. Watts, a plumber, will soon be teaching his neighbors how to drain their water pipes.
A quiet, residential street, Catherine Street is located seven blocks from Burlington's Main Street. Burlington, on Lake Champlain, is Vermont's largest city, with approximately 30,000 residents. The residents have found that preparing for Y2K has brought them together in more ways than one. 'What happens usually,' said Lane, 'is people will bring up other neighborhood issues [at the meetings].' A new city composting plan, the proposal to build a supermarket, ideas to reduce the speed of traffic cruising down Catherine Street are all issues the neighborhood group has discussed over supper.
Lane said the mild crisis posed by Y2K has led to better neighbor relations and created a social group that very well may continue to meet after Jan. 1. 'I think this is taking on a life of its own,' he said. 'At the end of each meeting, there's a real effort by us to find another time to get together.'
As for Catherine Street's Y2K readiness, Haggart said, 'We're all prepared for a couple days of something. Maybe just celebrating.'
Lane said he and his wife are having a celebratory brunch on New Year's Day, and the whole street is invited.
Contacts: Beth Haggart, Upper Catherine Street Neighbors Y2K Group, Burlington, Vt., 802-660-2764. Lanny Watts, Upper Catherine Street Neighbors Y2K Group, Burlington, Vt., 802-862-3392. Fred Lane, Upper Catherine Street Neighbors Y2K Group, Burlington, Vt., 802-862-3392.
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