greenspun.com : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread


May 23, 1999, Sunday

TYPE: Profile

LENGTH: 2595 words





STEVE KROFT, co-host:

When we did our first story last fall on Y2K, the year 2000 computer glitch that threatens to shut down the world's computers come January 1st next year, a lot of people still thought it was a joke, a lot of hype to make people go out and buy new software. Today, no one is laughing, least of all the corporations and public entities that have spent an estimated $200 billion trying to fix the problem. Everyone agrees that enormous progress has been made, that the computer glitch is not going to mean the end of civilization as we know it. Now the federal government is comparing Y2K to a huge natural disaster, like an earthquake, a hurricane or a tornado that disrupts peoples' lives for days, weeks or maybe even months. The people who seem to be the least prepared are local governments, and you may find that the computer bug hits hardest on the street where you live.

(Footage of computer room; computer chips; waterworks; 911 center; welfare office; traffic lights; computer room)

KROFT: (Voiceover) Local governments all across the country have become dependent upon computers and microprocessors to deliver services. They open the valves at the waterworks and handle 911 emergency calls. They send out the tax bills and print the welfare checks. They make the traffic lights turn red and green. And all of those systems are potentially vulnerable to the Y2K computer bug.

And no city is more vulnerable than Washington, DC. The federal government's General Accounting Office has warned Congress that the Y2K situation is so bad here that the nation's capital may be unable to effectively ensure public safety, collect revenue, educate students or provide health-care services.

(Footage of Mary Ellen Hanley and Kroft talking; business office)

KROFT: (Voiceover) No one is more aware of those problems than Mary Ellen Hanley, a top computer systems specialist who was hired by the District of Columbia to try and fix them. But when she took over last year as Washington's year 2000 program manager, she quickly discovered that there was no program and not much management.

Sounds like you expected the worst.

Mr. MARY ELLEN HANLEY: I expected the worst.

(Footage of Hanley and Kroft talking; sign reading District of Columbia Project Year 2000, Y2K Project Office; people using computers; shirt reading Govt. of the District of Columbia Y2K Project 1998-1999)

KROFT: (Voiceover) And she wasn't disappointed. Turns out no one even had a complete list of the departments and offices that make up Washington's local government, let alone a list of the computers and software they use. She quickly realized there was simply not enough time to make all the computers Y2K compliant.

But you had no illusions that you could fix all of the problems by the year 2000?

Ms. HANLEY: Never, never.

KROFT: All of the critical systems?

Ms. HANLEY: We hope all of the critical systems, but we knew we would never fix all of the systems of all of those 68 ag--District agencies. No time.

KROFT: So you--correct me if I'm wrong.


KROFT: You're so far behind, the only way to deal with the problem is to try and set up contingency plans, assuming things won't work.

Ms. HANLEY: Contingency is--is--is prudent. It's a prudent methodology.

(Footage of meeting dealing with manual workarounds)

KROFT: (Voiceover) In most cases, those contingency plans involve something called 'manual workarounds,' which is exactly what it sounds like: going back to doing things by hand, the way they were done before computers. When we spoke, her office had just finished a plan for the Office of Tax and Revenue.

Ms. HANLEY: We're going after contingency in a way that would be very basic, so if w--if it had to be manual, we would have to develop a way to do that.

KROFT: Pen, pencil and carbon paper?

Ms. HANLEY: Perhaps setting up centers around the city where people would come, print--print out everything before January 1st, have it in place so that we could deal with it, be able to set up centers where people could come, find out and check and verify taxes.

(Footage of Hanley in a meeting)

KROFT: (Voiceover) For some welfare-related programs, the kind Hanley describes as 'getting checks out so kids get fed,' the contingency plans are as simple as hiring a hall, renting tables and chairs and drafting a few hundred city workers from one department to write checks or keep records, so that another more critical department can be up and running.

Obviously, if you have a lot of failures, you're not going to have enough people.

Ms. HANLEY: Could happen.

KROFT: In the testing process, have you had failures?

Ms. HANLEY: We have had some failures, principally in the area of the District's payroll, a subject very close to all our hearts who work here in the District. We had a failure date of December 18th. We were able to find it. We were able to fix it and test it and return it to production. We had a...

KROFT: How long did that take?

Ms. HANLEY: That took us approximately 60 days.

KROFT: So if this had happened and you hadn't found it, you--your payroll department would've been out of commission for two months.

Ms. HANLEY: We would've been unhappy.

(Footage of a computer with Year 2000 on the screen; people using computers)

KROFT: (Voiceover) But it's not just computers shutting down that worries Mary Ellen Hanley. It's computers with Y2K problems that continue to function, improperly, spewing out inaccurate data, like issuing checks for the wrong amounts.

Instead of $500, it comes back $5.00 or $0.50.

Ms. HANLEY: Could, yes, any of those. Any of those--any of those amounts.

KROFT: Or $5,000.

Ms. HANLEY: Or $5,000. Yeah. That's a problem, too.

(Footage of the Capitol dome; Welcome to Montgomery County sign; computer room)

KROFT: (Voiceover) But even if Washington, DC, had started preparing years earlier, there's no guarantee it could have averted these problems. Just take a look at Washington's next-door neighbor, Montgomery County, Maryland, by most accounts, the best-prepared local government in the country for Y2K problems. It began preparations more than four years ago and has spent more than $40 million on Y2K fixes and replacements.

Mr. BRUCE ROMER: We have about 700 signalized traffic installations in the county.

(Footage of Romer showing Kroft the central traffic system)

KROFT: (Voiceover) County manager Bruce Romer is particularly proud of the state-of-the-art central traffic system. He rolled the clock ahead to show us there are no problems.

So the traffic system actually thinks that this is December...

Unidentified Technician: When it changes the clock, December 31st. And here we are, we're now year 2000.

KROFT: Zero one, zero one, zero zero.

Technician: Now you've got 2000.

KROFT: Yeah.

Mr. ROMER: 1/1/2000. There's an intersection right over there still functioning. And another over here.

These, again, have been certified as compliant.

(Footage of Romer showing off computer-related equipment; fireman climbing ladder)

KROFT: (Voiceover) To make sure all the problems were solved, Montgomery County inventoried and checked all of its computer systems and every piece of equipment that had a computer chip in it--1,100 items in the fire department alone. They thought they had tested everything.

So what happened on the first business day of 1999? Well, the computer that handles building permits crashed. The building permits are good for one year, and the computer couldn't handle expiration dates in the year 2000. But that wasn't the only problem. The county soon learned from Microsoft that the in-house computer network that handles e-mail and stores county records and was supposed to be Y2K compliant was not.

(Footage of Duncan at his desk)

KROFT: (Voiceover) And then there was that call county executive Doug Duncan got from Ericsson about the county's phone switcher, which was also supposed to be Y2K compliant.

Mr. DOUG DUNCAN: And then all of a sudden, they came back later and said, 'Oop, sorry, we made a mistake.' So now we're spending that $7 million getting a total new phone system for the county.

(Footage of Year 2000 Web site for Montgomery County)

KROFT: (Voiceover) And these are the kinds of problems being encountered in the best-prepared county in America.

If you're not convinced that you're going to be ready for this thing now, after spending $40 million and spending five years on it, what about the other communities around the country that haven't done anything?

Mr. DUNCAN: I get--I get a little nervous about some of that.

KROFT: You are a suburb of Washington, DC, the nation's capital.

Mr. DUNCAN: Yeah.

KROFT: What happens once you cross the line, the District of Columbia? Do you have any sense how well prepared the District is?

Mr. DUNCAN: My--my sense is, they're going to have some very serious problems. They're not going to be able to do it in the--in the next eight months.

KROFT: No way?

Mr. DUNCAN: It's not--it's not going to happen.

(Footage of water reservoir; wastewater facility; computer room; date on computer screen)

KROFT: (Voiceover) One of the prime concerns for Washington and other communities around the country is drinking water. Computerized water and wastewater treatment facilities use embedded computer chips in their control systems. Some of the chips in those water systems have been tested for Y2K and have failed. Mary Ellen Hanley believes that Washington's water system can run without its computer controls, but she acknowledged she may have to develop contingency plans for water rationing.

What would cause water to be rationed?

Ms. HANLEY: If we lose power, through the power grid--as any other state or city around us, including Montgomery County--we will not be able to function normally and we'll have to go to considerable slowdowns that will produce--could produce rationing, for example.

KROFT: You're preparing contingency plans that there might be no power?

Ms. HANLEY: Yes.

KROFT: For how long?

Ms. HANLEY: We're looking, roughly, at what we would consider national averages, one to two weeks.

KROFT: One to two weeks without power?

Ms. HANLEY: One to two weeks.

KROFT: You think that's possible?

Ms. HANLEY: Right now, we don't think it's impossible.

(Footage of Y2K brochure from the American Red Cross; excerpt from pamphlet reading, "Stock disaster supplies to last several days to a week..."; "...nonperishable foods, stored water...prescription and nonprescription medications...")

KROFT: (Voiceover) And apparently neither does the American Red Cross. The Red Cross Y2K checklist suggests that Americans stock enough 'disaster supplies to last several days to a week,' including 'non-perishable foods, stored water and an ample supply of prescription and non-prescription medications.'

Senator ROBERT BENNETT (Senate Special Committee On Y2K): The committee will come to order.

(Footage of Senator Bennett in a committee hearing)

KROFT: (Voiceover) According to Senator Robert Bennett, the chairman of the Senate Special Committee on the Y2K problem, there is still a possibility of economic disruption that could lead to civil unrest.

What does that mean?

Sen. BENNETT: If, for example, there is a municipality that is unable to distribute welfare checks, there could be some civil unrest that could come out of that. If--if there was a disruption in the food supply and food didn't get in, in a--a distributive kind of way--that it was concentrated in one part of the city but not in another--that could be a situation that could create some civil unrest.

KROFT: Do you have contingency plans for that? Does the federal government have contingency plans for that?

Sen. BENNETT: We do not have an overall, national federal program. There are some people who--who suggest, 'Gee, this is going to be martial law, in an effort to try to put down that kind of thing,' and they're very scared about it. We simply don't have the machinery for martial law. If it gets to the point where there is that big an emergency in a particular area, the governor would call out the National Guard. And it would be handled at a state level...

KROFT: Mm-hmm.

Sen. BENNETT: ...rather than a federal level.

(Footage of the Washington Monument; Metropolitan Police Washington, DC, shield; city streets; Senator Bennett addressing a conference)

KROFT: (Voiceover) As for Washington, DC, Senator Bennett feels that the District is taking a responsible approach with its contingency plans. A survey of county governments across the country shows that 73 percent of them have no contingency plans at all for Y2K failures. And a report prepared for the US Senate's Y2K Committee says 66 percent of all cities and towns will experience at least one critical computer system failure. Senator Bennett believes the country has made a lot of progress in the last six months, but he adds that the country is in unchartered waters, with no historic precedents.

Sen. BENNETT: The dire predictions will probably be fulfilled but on a sporadic basis, place by place. If you're in one of those places, the fact that the overall system works is not going to be very comforting to you. But we would be irresponsible if we were to say, there are no problems, everything's under control, because there's still a lot of work to be done.

Ms. HANLEY: We--we think there will be some disruptions, and we think they will be localized in many cases, if the supply chain works. That's a big if. If power works; if gas works; if Bell Atlantic works; if people who supply groceries to the inner city work; if pharmaceutical companies make enough pharmaceuticals; if people should horde things. All of those are big ifs. But I haven't yet seen, since I have been in--in this position and working with this project, that those groups are ignoring the kinds of concerns that you justifiably are raising that people have.

KROFT: I want to read you some advice that somebody gave about Y2K. "You can do the marauder approach and move to the mountains and take everyone with you, including your mother-in-law, and hole up for a year. Or you can buy four weeks' worth of water, put $100 in your pocket and make sure you're safe in your own home."

Ms. HANLEY: I know that quote.

KROFT: Who said it?

Ms. HANLEY: Actually, I said that.

KROFT: The quote get you into trouble?

Ms. HANLEY: I've had several conversations with interested people concerning that quote.

KROFT: How high up the food chain?

Ms. HANLEY: High enough for me.

KROFT: Is it good advice? Is it legitimate advice?

Ms. HANLEY: I believe it's--I--I believe the advice is that all of us do personal preparedness, as we would for any event that we know is coming. This event can't be legislated away. It's going to occur. I think it's wise to prepare, and I think it's wise for us in city government to take all the necessary steps that we can to serve our public, and you try to do that in the best way that you can.

KROFT: Earlier this spring, the federal government gave Washington, DC, $61 million for its Y2K work. Most of that money has already been spent, paying outside contractors like IBM, who had been working for months without being paid. Washington's government is now asking for an additional $50 million to finish the job.

-- Prometheus (fire@for.man), May 26, 1999

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