Y2K woes won't catch these folks unprepared Middle-class families borrow a page out of survivalists' notebook

November 29, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

The "Mom's Only Night" in the church basement seemed typical enough for meticulously suburban Columbia. Thirty-five women in sweaters and sweat shirts hashed out plans for a field trip to the Maryland Science Center and then tackled details for the fast-approaching Cookie Exchange Night.

Then talk turned to the millennium.

Mary Erickson, 39, stood before the women. Wearing blue jeans, a flower-embroidered pale green sweater, pearly earrings and a face full of concern, she beseeched the group not to take too lightly the potential for computer-driven global chaos in about 13 months.

"Well, ladies," she said with a nervous giggle, "I'd much rather be talking about sex or math than the end of the world as we know it."

The end won't sneak up on Erickson, her group or a growing number of mainstream moms and dads across the country.

Most experts have offered strong assurances that the end, if it comes anytime soon, will not be the result of millennium-induced computer failures.

But that has not stopped a small but increasingly visible population that is doing everything it can to physically prepare for the year 2000 -- for the coming "Y2K" problem, as it has become known.

Distinguished from fatalist religious groups preparing spiritually for the millennium, they are following preservation tactics more commonly employed by fringe survivalist groups who fear black helicopters and anything remotely connected to the government.

Their deadline arrives at the stroke of midnight when 1999 becomes 2000 -- when, they fear, computers all over the world could malfunction, causing grocery stores to close, faucets to run dry, ATMs to fritz out, cities to darken, and all manner of other calamity.

Sex and math? At Erickson's recent meeting they would have to take a back seat to instructions on how to store a year's worth of food, how to purify river water, how to buy an electric generator, how -- with technology suddenly short-circuiting society rather than propelling it forward -- to survive.

In their one-car, one-van homes on suburban cul-de-sacs, Erickson and her like adamantly believe in not having too much faith.

They are buying and storing tons of dry milk and other dehydrated foods. They are snatching up kerosene heaters, stashing water in their basements, batteries in their cupboards and money in their mattresses.

Whether Erickson and other like her number in the thousands or the tens of thousands is hard to determine. But what is clear is that the more fearful among them are buying gold in anticipation of a monetary collapse.

Some are storing guns, fearing civil upheaval. They are filling their bookshelves with titles such as "Self-Reliant Living," "Making the Basics" and "Don't Get Caught With Your Pantry Down."

"What's apparently happening is the massive mainstream is picking up where the religious fringe was for the last millennium," says Steven Conn, a professor of history at Ohio State University in Columbus.

He counts himself among historians who believe that there was widespread awareness at the coming of 1000 and that reactions included an increase in pilgrimages to Jerusalem and a surge in executions of heretics.

"A thousand years ago, there certainly was a kind of end-of-the-world strain to things that went on in advance of the first millennium," Conn says. "In a way, Y2K has become the more scientific metaphor for channeling all of their end-of-the-world anxieties.

"Before it was more, 'Christ is going to come, the world is going to end.' Now we have, 'The computers are going to crash; the world is going to end.' "

Those preparing for a Y2K problems crash say they are only ensuring themselves against the chance of serious disruptions, not the certainty of them.

"What we're doing," Erickson says, "is looking out for our families. You carry fire insurance even though you never think you're going to have a fire.

"How is this any different?"

Far from extremists

They are preparing, after all, for some of the same types of problems as the National Guard. The executive director of the National Guard Association of the United States told a U.S. Senate committee recently that he is certain the National Guard will be used to help quell problems when 2000 arrives.

Erickson and her husband, Loren, are far from extremists. And while they hope to survive the computer problems that may come, they do not consider themselves survivalists.

She is a homemaker; he is an Army physician. They have six children, live in Columbia and attend Columbia Presbyterian Church.

In addition to being a suburban homemaker, Mary Erickson also is a self-confessed computer junkie.

Lately, she has been getting her fix watching a growing number of Y2K-related Web sites pop up with such unsettling messages as, "Fortune 500 will not be ready," "U.S. Army, Navy and Airforce Disarmed," "World Chaos" and, most pessimistically, "Total Collapse."

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