Confessions Of A (Former) Y2K Paranoid

Next time we face the threat of a worldwide apocalyptic technological breakdown, I'm sure my hoard of meals ready to eat (MREs), battery-powered lamps, and Eco-Fuel cooking equipment will come in very handy indeed.

But on New Year's Day, as I looked at my case of Millennium Gourmet dehydrated foods sitting untouched in my storage closet, I was overcome with a certain sadness. In the course of reporting on Y2K issues and the survivalist fringe, I'd turned into something of a paranoid Y2K nut myself (even as I kept up my pose as an amused, ironic writer on Y2K extremism). By the time my mania reached its height last summer, I had nearly rented a retreat in the Florida Keys, gorged myself on Web sites and books with titles like Time Bomb 2000, and happily spent hours leafing through survivalist catalogs.

I thought it was all a rational response to the computer-related menace forecast even by mainstream experts, such as the General Accounting Office (which predicted that nearly half of utilities would miss their repair deadlines) and the Senate's Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem. Sure, the committee's co-chair, conservative Republican Senator Robert Bennett of Utah, was a member of the Mormon Church -- which directs its members to stock a year's worth of food and supplies for emergencies -- but his pronouncements certainly grabbed my attention. He warned in a National Press Club speech in 1998 that unless the problem was fixed, it was a "possibility" that "civilization as we know it" might end; at the very least, we should all stock up for a few weeks. The Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency echoed that advice, warning citizens to store up to a week of food and supplies.

In recent months, of course, Bennett and other downbeat Y2K experts became far more tempered, but by then I'd already prepared for potential doom.

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I wasn't the only jittery journalist. Newsweek seized the issue early with a shocking cover story in 1997 on "The Day The World Shuts Down." Wired magazine told us how some computer programmers assigned to repair the broken code were fleeing to rural retreats. And Vanity Fair topped them all with an article entitled "The Y2K Nightmare," which opened with a vivid portrait of paralyzed cities, closed hospitals, and worldwide rioting.

In truth, I had looked to the mainstream doomsayers for confirmation of fears generated by far more extreme alarmists. Even as I tried to reassure myself that the alarmists were pandering to right-wing Christian fanatics, I trembled; what if doom-and-gloomers like Ed Yourdon -- the computer expert who wrote Time Bomb 2000, fled his New York City home, and was storing a year's worth of food -- were just a little bit right?

My concerns were kicked into overdrive when I encountered Dr. Gary North, a doomsayer historian, on the Art Bell late-night radio show, the leading national forum for conspiracy theories and tales of the supernatural. In North's grim scenario, trains wouldn't run, power plants would shut down, food supplies would vanish, banks and businesses would close, cities burn. The culprits included failed embedded chips we couldn't fix in time and a computerized rail system sure to crash. "I think there will be a collapse of Western civilization if the power grid does go down, and I can see no reason why it won't," North announced.

Only much later did I discover that North hid from his Y2K followers his true agenda: He was an extremist member of a Christian sect and believes that secular institutions -- including the banks -- should be destroyed and then ruled by a theocratic cadre of God's elect awaiting Christ's return. (That seemed, of course, like an awfully steep price to pay for an error in my BIOS chip.) How could I have known that North once admitted, "Of course I want to see Y2K bring down the system, all over the world. I have hoped for this all of my adult life"?

So it was North who sowed my first seeds of panic over Y2K, which started to bloom when I flew to Missouri to cover a conference of conservative Christian survivalists for a magazine in July 1998. Normally, the journalist is supposed to come away from these events with a sneering account of loony yokels and their paranoid fantasies about Y2K and the New World Order. But while there were some nut cases out there, I also met good-hearted people who made me think twice (okay, quite a bit more than twice) about Y2K. I browsed among the exhibits, too, pretending to do research while tasting dehydrated foods, and I bought a "survival straw" that filtered out toxins from contaminated water.

For instance, when Candace Turner, a mother of four and a businesswoman, showed me the bicycles she was collecting to use as barter when the monetary system collapsed, I thought it was nutty -- but it made me think about withdrawing some hefty sums from my own bank.

By early last year, I had started seriously looking for a vacation retreat in Florida, within driving distance of my Miami apartment. I was traveling with a friend who was a computer wizard and even more worried about Y2K's impact than I was. We talked to agents in Captiva and the Keys about renting properties from mid-November 1999 to February 2000 -- all the while pretending to be seeking only a blissful escape for writing and relaxation.

Meanwhile, we kept a sharp eye out for the Y2K readiness of the vacation properties we visited: We quietly scoured the grounds for wells or propane tanks, and wondered if the houses were far enough away from the main highway to ensure that desperate marauders wouldn't prey on us. In looking for my own rural retreat, I couldn't help but remember the warning of one survivalist I interviewed: "If you live within five miles of a '7-11', you're toast."

Eventually, we zeroed in on the Upper Keys as our target area, and with the help of an elaborate spreadsheet that ranked each property by quality and Y2K-friendly perks (my friend wanted a sailboat dock if we needed a quick escape, for example), we signed a preliminary agreement to take a pleasant two-bedroom rental that would cost us as much as $7,500. A small price to pay for a safe haven, I thought.

I came to my senses just in time.

My Y2K fever started to break, oddly enough, while I plunged into reporting on more Y2K alarmism. Worried about just how well prepared the government and utilities were, I turned my neurotic obsessions about Y2K into an excuse to do a detailed article on the preparations made by my own local government in Miami-Dade County. Ever alert for the faintest signs of impending disaster and bureaucratic folly, I sat in on high-level county meetings, grilled utility spokesmen and banking officials -- and discovered that the county's Y2K officials were more obsessed than I was. Even here in Miami-Dade County, infamous for its corruption and incompetence, bureaucrats and businessman seemed to be doing something right. They seemed ready for Y2K. Naturally, I was shocked by this astounding -- and, to a crusading journalist, disappointing -- discovery.

My pending decision to spend thousands in rent and countless hours schlepping Y2K supplies to the Keys began to look increasingly ridiculous. Moreover, I already had all the food, batteries, and cooking equipment I needed right at home. Why flee the city?

By September 1, I backed out of the rental agreement with a sense of relief: I could spend Y2K partying and then return to my cozy apartment. My friend coolly accepted my decision, but I sensed she felt I was putting myself at risk. Then a real quasi-disaster struck: A hurricane hit south Florida a few weeks later, and I was without power for one whole day. I found that I could endure this grueling ordeal, even though I suffered horribly by having to actually eat some of the gristle-like dehydrated food I'd stockpiled.

By New Year's Eve, when it became clear that no country in the entire world was being hurt by Y2K, I realized I hadn't paid much of a price for my fears. And those who did are generally sticking by their guns (so to speak). Steve Heller, a computer programmer and author, fled to rural east Texas and spent $100,000 on Y2K systems and supplies, including a steam engine. "The one thing I didn't expect was that nothing would happen, but I acted rationally on the information I had," he asserts. Candace Turner cheerily told me she was going out for a Sunday bike ride with her extended family on all those barter-ready bicycles she'd bought.

As for me, even as I watched the New Year's Eve fireworks exploding on Miami Beach, I glanced back to look at the Art Deco hotels along Ocean Drive -- just to be sure. The lights were still twinkling.

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