Y2K bug could be a disaster that builds community feeling

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Frome the Seattle Times.

It's your neighbor talking about things like "capacity inventory" and "contingency waste treatment."

Read all about it in todays Seattle Times front page.



-- Martin Thompson (Martin@aol.com), January 21, 1999


That's an encouraging one Martin:

Y2K bug could be a disaster that builds community feeling

by Eric Sorensen Seattle Times staff reporter

Just when you had written off the Year 2000 computer problem as one for nerds and survivalists, there's a knock at your door.

It's your neighbor talking about things like a "capacity inventory" and "contingency waste treatment."

You can have one of two reactions: You might get a subtle sense of community that has been eroded by the anonymous urban and suburban life, the automobile, television, even the electric garage-door opener that keeps us in a sealed bubble from work to home.

Or, with a pained smile, you might hear yourself think, "There goes the neighborhood."

That pesky Y2K computer bug - the one that will seize computers not programmed to roll from the year '99 to '00 - could end up being a community-builder on a par with floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters that bring people together through adversity. Only, this effort would be planned. For while some people will ring in the new year in stocked and fortified mountain retreats, a small but growing number are bracing for Y2K as a community effort.

"The best way to be prepared is to have a prepared neighbor," said Janet Luhrs of Seattle, author of "The Simple Living Guide" and co-author of the "Y2K Preparedness Guide: 110 Ways to Create A Sustainable Life - Crisis or Not." "The theory is, if you pull together as a community, you're better prepared for anything than you are if you just take care of your own needs."

Nationwide, some 200 community-preparedness groups are discussing ways to weather the Y2K problem which, in theory, could cause computers and electronic devices to fail and disrupt the networks that control institutions such as banks, airlines, utilities and services. In Washington, groups have been caucusing in Spokane, Port Townsend, Olympia, Seattle and on Whidbey Island.

Luhrs, along with voluntary-simplicity experts Vicki Robin and Cecile Andrews, will attempt to jump-start a citywide community-preparedness effort with a presentation at 7 p.m. tomorrow in the Phinney Neighborhood Center, 6532 Phinney Ave. N. One theme will be how the principles of voluntary simplicity can be adapted to better prepare for a potential emergency like a loss of electric power or water.

But the discussion's organizers and other community-preparedness advocates also stress that - Y2K power outages and empty store shelves aside - their efforts could lead to a renewed sense of community.

"Even if nothing happens, what you will have gained from all that preparation and working together and cooperating with neighbors will be a really vital transformation of our society," said Luhrs. "Even if nothing happens, you're going to wind up better off."

If their efforts take root, the community-preparedness effort will also signal a shift in how the computer bug is being perceived. It started as the domain of computer techies, then spawned a growth industry fueled by Web sites, survivalists, futurists and religious millennialists, even though the Christian millennium technically doesn't start until 2001.

But where the millennialists talk about The End of the World As We Know It, the community-oriented crowd takes a more-balanced approach that combines self-reliance, an American tradition dating back to the Colonial period, with bonhomie.

"We're taking a positive approach to this," said Dorothy Craig of Spokane, where a Y2K action group has about 100 people in planning committees on food, water, energy, shelter and health care. "The people heading for the hills, that's based on fear. This is based on love."

This new wave is far from the mainstream, but it's heading in that direction and there are signs the movement is gaining momentum.

The Utne Reader, a national alternative news magazine, last month distributed its "Y2K Citizens' Action Guide" to 260,000 subscribers and printed 100,000 more copies. Among those placing orders are a Massachusetts charter school, a Chicago museum, a Salt Lake City bank, a Wisconsin public library, a Maryland hospice and a building contractor in the Okanogan County town of Omak. The magazine is now printing an additional 140,000 copies and is talking to retailers about distribution.

Still, the effort prompts the question, Y2Care?

President Clinton does, warning in his State of the Union speech Tuesday that the country "must be ready for the 21st century from its very first moment, by solving the so-called Y2K computer problem."

Then again, he noted that only one member of Congress stood to applaud his remark, "and we may have about that ratio out there applauding at home in front of their television sets."

For all the hundreds of Web sites and thousands of articles written on the subject, it is remarkably unclear whether Y2K is a legitimate problem or worthy of the response "Armageddonsickofit."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) this month urged counties, cities, towns and school districts to get moving on Y2K fixes and contingency plans. While states and larger local governments are addressing the issue, "many smaller local governments, as well as some state and territorial governments, seem not to be aware of the problem," said FEMA Deputy Director Mike Walker.

Ed Yardeni, chief economist for the international investment firm Deutsche Morgan Grenfell and one of the most widely quoted Y2K prognosticators, last month said the nation's top companies are lagging in their spending to fix the problem. Only five of the 34 utility companies he looked at had spent half their Y2K-related budgets.

But the nation's electric-power companies this month issued a report saying, basically, don't sweat it. A review by the North American Electric Reliability Council said any impact from the bug will amount to a "nuisance."

The Washington Small Business Development Center last week released a survey suggesting that only half the state's small and midsize businesses are taking measures to solve potential Y2K problems. Some businesses may have already checked their systems and found they will be unaffected, said Stuart Leidner, the center's coordinator for innovation and research.

Those trying to organize a community response to the problem are finding plenty of public inertia.

"I tried to get my church involved, but nobody was interested," said Peter Gienger, a member of Seattle's Year 2000 Preparedness Council, a grass-roots group, who lives in the Snohomish County town of Gold Bar.

Paloma O'Riley, co-founder of the Colorado-based Cassandra Project, the premier Y2K community-preparedness Web site, said organizing efforts are hampered by "the fact that the media is doing a great job of making anyone who is working on Y2K look like an idiot."

As an example, she pointed to the recent "The End of the World!?!" cover of Time magazine, which hyped itself as "a guide to millennium madness."

O'Riley advises community organizers to take a low-key approach, giving neighbors solid information and a phone number to call with questions.

The Whidbey Island project is having teenagers go door to door to take a "capacity inventory" of what skills residents can bring to bear on a Y2K-induced crisis.

"It's kind of asking people to bring their best selves forward, instead of `I've got mine, no problem,' " said Rick Ingrasci, director of the Whidbey CyberC@fe & Bookstore and member of the South Whidbey Community Resilience Project. "We're looking for an increase in random acts of kindness."

Community-preparedness groups have agendas thick with presentations on subjects like electric generators, bicycling, food storage, emergency management and organizing block watches.

Luhrs, in her book of 110 ways to prepare for Y2K, offers a range of suggestions that run from the practical to the less-than-realistic. Riding a bike is an everyday sensible thing, but moving closer to work is something else.

It makes sense to keep good paper records of your financial status - mortgage payments, savings, mutual funds - but is the Y2K siege going to be so long that we really need to take up bartering?

Luhrs and others say Y2K preparations will become more widespread but are dawning on the public consciousness like the stages of grief, with varying degrees of denial, anger, fear and acceptance.

In the next six months, predicted Ingrasci, the Y2K problem will be legitimized, possibly with support from high government officials. But solutions to the problem, he said, cannot come from on high.

"What's needed is everybody participating, and I mean everybody," he said. "The more people that are involved, the more likely we are to be able to deal well with whatever disruptions occur."

-- a (a@a.a), January 21, 1999.

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