Why not 2K?
OK, so Jan. 1, 2000, probably isn't going to be the end of civilization as we know it. But why not take a few precautions around the home, just in case there are minor disruptions in our computer-driven society caused by the turn of the millennium? Especially if those precautions aren't costly, make sense as general disaster preparedness and don't contribute to the millennial hysteria.
As 1999 winds down, it's no longer just the extremists suggesting we should be ready for problems created by the so-called millennium bug, which could cause some computers to shut down because they won't know how to calculate the year 2000 (otherwise known as Y2K).
"It's a big project here," says Leslie Credit, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross. "We're preparing for it as we would for any other disaster."
At one end of the spectrum are the survivalists stockpiling freeze-dried foods and emergency generators in their basements in case power grids fail. At the other are those stockpiling champagne because the price may skyrocket in December. Somewhere in between fall the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), organizations not prone to unfounded panic.
"At the local level there may be minor disruptions," Mary Margaret Walker, spokeswoman for FEMA, says cautiously. FEMA is suggesting people prepare as they might for a winter storm, with three days' worth of food and water on hand, flashlights, blankets and a full tank of gas in the car.
"We believe there will be problems if people get panicked and start hoarding," Walker says. "It makes sense to start preparing now."
In other words, judging by how Baltimoreans react to the mere threat of snow -- let alone a millennium -- don't expect to find any toilet paper or bread left on supermarket shelves come Dec. 31.
The solution isn't to wait until the end of the year, say the Y2K experts, and then try to stock up on emergency supplies, but to start planning and acting now, so the millennial disaster scenario won't become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"You want to minimize the stress on the infrastructure," says Jim Hickman, author of "Your Y2K Personal Protection Plan" (HarperCollins, 1999). "If everybody picks up the phone on Jan. 1 to see if it works, it won't."
If buying extra food, storing water and getting a little extra cash in case ATMs aren't up and running seem reasonable to you, you might want to begin by checking out the enormous amount of information on the Internet or read one of the not-so-alarmist books on the subject. (See the sidebar for suggestions.) There are common-sense things you and your family could do that might not have occurred to you.
For instance, Karen Anderson, author of "Y2K for Women: How to Protect Your Home and Family in the Coming Crisis" (Sovereign Press, 1999), says she has three items she insists everybody needs for Y2K:
* A working fire extinguisher
* A battery-operated smoke detector
* A carbon-monoxide detector
"The solution can be more dangerous than the problem, if there's a power failure and people bring their charcoal grill inside to cook on," she says. "They could asphyxiate their whole family."
The good thing about her suggestion is that even if you think the Y2K bug is a gigantic hoax dreamed up to sell books and survival gear, you have to agree that these are three useful things to have around the house.
While you're at it, see if your flashlight is working and find your kid's Walkman, the one he discarded when he got a portable CD player. A battery-powered radio could be useful to have around. Collect those candle stubs and put them someplace easy to find in the dark.
"In our family," says Hickman, "we've inventoried our camping gear. It's not about buying new stuff but making sure what we have is working. I don't think we should change our lives for Y2K."
Hickman believes that information about our financial assets is most at risk because so much of it is stored in computers. "That data will be lost for some of us," he says. "We need hard copy of everything we are and own. Ten years ago we all had that; most of us still do. We just need to inventory it."
Hickman also recommends getting paper copies of our credit histories in September 1999 and again in January 2000 and comparing them for discrepancies.
He suggests not using credit cards in December and January to avoid electronic billing over the date change (but that would put a serious crimp in most people's holiday shopping). Be sure to keep all your receipts for payments and charges, he urges, and compare them to your billing statements.
What's the worst that could happen following his advice? Maybe we wouldn't need the paper copies, but we'd have a head start on our 1999 tax returns.