Making Hay Out of Y2K

Preparedness 101

A spectacularly attended Austin City Council meeting held recently brought together Mayor Kirk Watson along with the heads of the city's utilities, waste management, fire, police, the Office of Emergency Management, and the city's chief information officer, Linda Beth Brady, all of whom assured the eager attendees that order would prevail and things were being taken care of. And while Watson genially allowed that stocking up on "two to three days' worth of food and water" might be a good idea, the general mood at the meeting -- and seemingly the general mood in Austin -- was that things would go pretty smooth. Nobody wants a panic on their hands.

As the city's CIO, Brady has found herself in the unenviable position of making sure that all of the city of Austin's official computers are up to snuff and are able to pass a series of predefined Terms of Compliance. In this case, compliance means that:

  • calculations using dates must execute using a four-digit number,
  • all online and batch programs must support four-digit year processing,
  • interfaces must support four-digit year processing,
  • product must successfully translate into the year 2000 and beyond with correct system dates (i.e. 1/01/2000) without human intervention,
  • leap year must be calculated correctly,
  • product must provide correct results in forward and backward date calculation spanning century boundaries, including the conversion of previous years if currently stored as two digits, and,
  • year fields other than dates (model years, etc.) must contain century and year.

Heady stuff, yes, but without these tests (which must be performed multiple times over) there's no way to know if the city's computer infrastructure will continue to function smoothly.

"It started out with people thinking Y2K was a computer problem," says Brady. "It is a computer problem, but it's more of an operations problem that involves computers, and so you have to have the involvement of the people who are running the business, and that's not the technology people. The technology people are supporting the business with technology."

Remarkably unfazed by the job before her, Brady is quick to point out that initial confusion over the issue was a major concern. Just finding out what needed (and needs) to be run through the gauntlet of testing has been difficult, but not impossible.

"I think people are concerned when they don't understand, and with that it doesn't matter if it's Y2K or anything else -- some people will panic and some people do nothing. That's pretty much the situation," Brady said. "Just because the computer code is incorrect and won't roll over to the year 2000, you've got to put that into context: What does the code do? Is it keeping accounting books, or is it running a communications system that you have to have for public safety? There are things that we do for efficiency or convenience and that's why we have technology, you know, to automate things that take a lot of human intervention and a lot of time. Now, some of those things you can do without. Some you could do without for forever, some you could do without for a while and be very inconvenienced. And then some things would be very difficult to do without because we've forgotten what we did before we had that [technology]. We're very dependent."

Photo of Julie Thomas

Julie Thomas, a public relations director at
the American Red Cross, says the center receives
12-13 calls a day from Austinites concerned
about what they should be doing to prepare for Y2K.

photograph by John Anderson

Other initial concerns on the city's part -- Will phones work? Will cars start? -- provided additional stumbling blocks for the move toward compliance. Early on, the city got wind of erroneous information that caused them to seriously worry about their transportation fleets (police cruisers and so on). The rumors turned out to be applicable only to "a certain year Jeep Cherokee," however.

"We found out in going through all this over the last several years," adds Brady, "that all the stories that we had heard, plus all the fears that we had, most of those have been allayed just by going through the process of asking what do we have? What does the manufacturer say? What do the test results say? And so on. And what if it doesn't work even though the manufacturer told you it was okay and perhaps you couldn't test it? Then what? What does that mean? Most of the time it means you're going to have to do something else. And so we tried to focus on "what is that something else?" What alternatives do you have? We have systems in place and those fears just have not come to reality."

Over at the Office of Emergency Management, director Steve Collier has an even bigger workload these days, planning for an event that could range in seriousness from the simple brownouts as typically caused by inclement weather to a full-fledged emergency. Again, since the Y2K bug is wholly unprecedented, the OEM is struggling to prepare for the unknown, albeit somewhat more slowly than many citizens would like. One idea that's finally seeing the light of day after much discussion involves OEM contacting Austin neighborhood groups to explain what they can do to help. This plan, however, has been slow in being enacted, though Collier assures me it's on the table at this point.

Asked if the city has a contingency plan for a full-scale disaster -- no food, no shelter, no fun -- at this juncture, Collier concedes that such a plan has yet to be developed: "The short answer? No, we do not have a contingency plan at this point; however, part of our overall planning effort will be a city-wide emergency response plan for Y2K, or an upgrade to our existing one and we will be taking a look at that issue."

As for the OEM plan currently in place, Collier says that generally, in talking about a power outage of lengthy duration, "we're looking at specifically trying to address some things relating to mass care and sheltering and those sorts of things. For example, one thing that we're talking about right now is the possibility of a power outage in the wintertime where you have people needing some place to warm up and those sorts of things; we open up a shelter. Normally, because the power outages tend to be localized, we just find a shelter that's in an area that still has power. We don't have any predesignated shelters right now that have their own backup power, so one of the things that we are trying to do at this time is to get two of the city's park and rec centers equipped with backup power so that we would at least have some place where we could bring people if we had a generalized outage throughout the city."

The problem with that -- in light of the possibility of long-term shelter needs -- is that each of the shelters Collier mentioned has space for less than a thousand people, meaning that residents with health care problems and the elderly would rightly have first shot at a roof and a generator over the rest of the populace. Clearly more stand-by shelter facilities are in order, but where they're going to come from is currently anyone's guess.

Don't Lose Your Head

Along with the possible need for shelters and general emergency management, Collier agrees that there are concerns over the possibility of what is being called the siege mentality that the Y2K problem may create. Stockpiling food, water, guns (the question of packs of starving dogs taking to the streets is an actual issue in some quarters), and so on will almost certainly become de rigeur in some quarters as 1999 drifts toward its end.

Says Collier: "We have some concerns about that, yes. What has been expressed to us is frustration that there seem to be so many different opinions, everybody's an expert, and parts of the news media are focusing on the fringes and survivalist mentality so that people can't really figure out what the reasonable person is supposed to do. One of the things that we will be trying to work on in the next month or so is a variety of methods of getting the City's official recommendations on what people need to do to prepare. We're probably going to be working through neighborhood associations and some of those groups that already have networks to help us get the word out there.

"In general we are concerned about overreaction, we are concerned about people getting out there with weapons and inadvertently shooting somebody who may be walking on the street. You might get your gun and shoot someone who turns out to be an electric utility repair person trying to find a pole.

"We are later than we would have liked to have been, but when we do something we want to do it right. Right now, what we generally do is recommend that people go take a look at the Red Cross Web site ( or go to the Red Cross and pick up some pamphlets. They're very good general guides, but here at OEM we want to give more details for the Austin area itself."

Julie Thomas, public relations director of the Austin Red Cross, concurs, noting that the center has been receiving 12-13 calls a day from Austinites concerned about what they should be doing to prepare, or if they even need to worry about Y2K at all. After over 100 years helping restore heads and hearts after almost every conceivable type of life-disrupting event, the American Red Cross still seems to be where most people turn when the issue of impending calamity arises.

"One of the things that our national office has done," says Thomas, "is create a brochure called 'Y2K Preparing,' which basically takes the approach of 'don't panic, be prepared.' We're trying to help people to prepare as they would for an ice storm, for example. Three days' worth of supplies, take out enough money from the bank for a long weekend, and just make the regular preparations that you would for, say, hurricane season. Just do basic disaster preparedness as you would normally do."

Asked if the Austin Red Cross has made any specific plans for potential shelter needs in the wake of New Year's 2000, she says that shelter agreements with several area schools and churches are already in place.

"All of these places know that if something happens that night and we need to get in, we will be able to," she says, adding that the Red Cross also has a group of Ham Radio operators on standby in case the phone lines are down.

As if that isn't enough, says Thomas, "We're planning on having our office open on New Year's Eve and putting our volunteers on call for that evening in case something should happen."

So much for New Year's revelry.

The official line for the city of Austin, at this early date, is that things are going to be just fine. There may be a few dips in the road such as temporary power outages, but the notion that Y2K could spell the end of pretty much everything as we know it is considered alarmist if not downright stupid. But still, the nagging feeling that anything could happen, that, really, no one really knows what's going on here, remains.

The Flip Side

Two voices not affiliated with the city of Austin and its plans are Ross Mason, owner of Hyde Park's much-loved Avenue B. Grocery, and author/futurist Bruce Sterling, who also makes his home amongst the tree- and slacker-laden streets of Hyde Park. Both, however, are moderately concerned with Y2K, Mason as a small business owner and Sterling from the point of view of a lauded author of speculative sci-fi.

While the Avenue B. Grocery has been in the same location for the past 93 years, Mason has only been running the joint for 14 years. The 10th consecutive owner, Mason has kept the grocery's funky, retro charm while making some of the best sandwiches in town and keeping one of the last of the old-fashioned grocery stores open for business six days a week.

Curious as to what a small-business owner thought about Y2K (you can tell Mason is thinking about it -- a lot -- by the rapidly growing series of Y2K-related news clippings tacked up beside his register), I met with Mason one Sunday afternoon and spoke with him about what, if anything, the city of Austin was doing to help local business owners such as himself deal with Y2K issues. His answer? Nada.

"No one has approached me," says the genial Mason. "My insurance company sent me a questionnaire to fill out because evidently rates might go up for companies that aren't compliant, and I've called them about it and told them that the only thing I'd had a problem with was my cash register, which will not print the year '00.' But I needed a new register anyway. It's a regular old Sanyo or something."

For independent businessmen like Mason, being "Y2K compliant" is more an issue of figuring out how to test things than following some state-approved checklist. It's arcane, to say the least.

"I can check my register, sure, but there are other things that, of course, I can't check," he says. "Like, for example, is my VCR going to work? Is my truck going to work? A friend of mine had his wife check with their Lexus dealer and Lexus assured them that it would, but then when they asked for that in writing from the company, they were turned down. Couldn't get it in writing no matter how they tried. So, I think the thing of it is, is that a lot of people just don't know what to do."

As the owner of a grocery, Mason already has plenty of food and provisions around on a daily basis, but I wondered if he was planning on stocking up on MREs and the like just in case.

"I'm stocked to the gills, fully armed, got the generator out back ..." he bursts out laughing. "No, really, that's the thing: What are the facts? As far as the food industry is concerned, which is primarily what I'm concerned about, what happens in the first three days without power is that you lose all frozen foods, fresh meats -- this is if you don't have a generator. And as far as generators go, if you've done the math, a generator to run my little grocery with 10 or 12 frozen cases and refrigerators, would suck up about a gallon of fuel an hour. Over three days that's 72 gallons, right? Now, I don't have anything to store 72 gallons of fuel in right now and I don't know whether or not it would be legal to have it. If the situation lasted longer than 72 hours and assuming you wouldn't have the power to pump gas down at the local filling station, you'd need even more fuel stored up, in which case you do have a hazardous thing going on. I'm not sure that everybody would know how to handle it."

"That seems to be the thing this all hinges on," he says. "Do you believe in this happening so strongly that you need a generator?

"The markets at any one time generally have in stock three days' supplies for the city. So worst case scenario, if everything were to shut down, we'd start running out of food within three days. The thing is, not everyone is going to have a generator, so within three days you've got people needing food, basic services like waste problems, cleanliness problems, communication problems, rumors flying, and more. How many people even have battery-powered radios these days?

"Eventually you begin to have a collective problem if it's more than three days," Mason continues. "I'm beginning to wonder why we haven't heard anything about an emergency plan of some sort. What should we listen for? Is the horn at the fire station going to go off signaling something or other if there's an emergency? I know the alarm sounds if there's a fire, but I don't know what the code is for 'come get your water,' do you? All this can lead to civil unrest, say, if people don't know that there's even someplace set up for them to go to in a situation like this where they can get food and water. And then of course there are things like sanitary problems. Not everyone knows how to build a latrine in their backyard."

Pulling out a yellow legal pad covered in chicken scratch notes, Mason is possibly the most prepared person I've spoken with yet. He's done his homework, and though much of what he relates sounds dire, he doesn't strike you as the wingnut type. He's a level-headed Joe making contingency plans for a possible societal meltdown, though he's quick to point out that he hopes nothing much happens. Bad for business, you know.

Speaking about his personal plans for the millennial rollover, he says, "Personally, I usually take a break around the Christmas holiday -- it's a slow time of year for me as a small businessman anyway -- I could probably condense all my refrigerated and frozen stuff into just one big fridge and one big freezer in which case I have 10 extra machines available. If we had enough information available to know if there was even a 50/50 chance that something like this might go on for more than three days, I could probably refrigerate everybody's stuff out of their refrigerators on this entire block (or the equivalent of that number of people) and we could jointly invest in a generator. That would allow us to stay current on any sort of communication necessary.

"All told, I feel like all of this is part reality and part media event and part personal speculation about the end of the world."

A few blocks away, Bruce Sterling waxes slightly less alarmed.

"I don't think anybody really knows what's going to happen," he says. "I think a lot of computers are going to go down, but I'm not really a major alarmist because I really don't think the world is that tightly linked. My suspicion is that it's not going to be the core systems but rather the kind of rural places and guys who are depending on legacy systems that are a million years old. I would expect there to be a lot of severe trouble for a lot of these older and smaller enterprises here and there, but I don't think it means the end of civilization as we know it."

Sterling, who's made his living not only as an author of several seminal science fiction works, but also as a journalist with books such as The Hacker Crackdown and occasional reportage for tech-savvy Wired magazine, downplays the millennial hysteria.

"I don't think it is going to have global impact," says Sterling. "I expect to see trouble all over the world, but that doesn't mean the whole world goes into a tailspin. If you look at what's going on in Russia right now, basically everything that Y2K could possibly do to them has already happened: People aren't getting paid, banks are crashing, the transportation system doesn't work, their whole infrastructure is becoming dysfunctional. What the hell else is left? And that's a sixth of the world right there."

Echoing a recent pamphlet put out by the left-leaning Utne Reader which looks at the Y2K problem as a sort of karmic block party, Sterling says "I'm not going to be on an airplane and I'll probably stay off the roads, but I'm certainly not arming myself to the teeth. The best thing you can possibly do if you're afraid of crime or civil discord is to get to know your next-door neighbor. Go over there and knock on the guy's front door and say hi. At least get to know what he looks like. There may be a few loons or militia clowns or whatever who are going to figure that it's open season on January second; if they go out and start marauding, I can guarantee you every conceivable national guardsman and authority figure in the USA is going to be on a state of high alert. The first guy to raise his head above the parapet is going to get stomped, you know? Don't do it. That would be my words of advice to any would-be mongols."

Cool heads prevail. That's the hope, anyway. With just under nine months to go, Austin and literally the entire world are scrambling to fix aging bedrock systems so that the traffic lights will still work and Saturday Night Live will still be live come Saturday, Jan. 1, 2000.

The Y2K story -- epic, saga, scam, call it what you will -- is unfolding on a daily basis. Glitches are appearing. Things are getting done. It's one of the few news stories that affects the entire world, a possible global disaster or a possible global dud. At this point, the only certain thing in a whirlwind of debate and confusion is that something's gonna give. No one is denying the fact that some power outages, like hangovers, are inevitable. But how much, and for how long? There are more questions than answers.

Words to live by in the coming nine months from Mr. Sterling:

"In a way I don't think the world is as tightly connected as software engineers would have us believe. I think they're flattering themselves by thinking that because they screwed up it means the end of everything."

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