The clock keeps ticking. Now we have less than a year to Jan. 1, 2000, the unalterable day when every system from 911 emergency services to air traffic controls to energy supplies faces possible disruption because of computers and embedded microchips misprogramed for the century switch.
"I cannot be optimistic, and I am generally concerned about the possibility of power shortages," says Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, chairman of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Problem. "Supermarket supplies may be disrupted. It's clear we can't solve the whole problem."
Then Bennett adds a personal warning to us all: "Pay attention to things that are vulnerable in your life and make contingency plans. Don't panic _ but don't spend too much time sleeping, either."
Fine, but what do I do?
Do I stock up on home supplies _ medicines, firewood, bottled water, Sterno or charcoal for cooking and canned food (including a hand-operated can opener)? And maybe an extra cash supply?
Or do I figure this problem can only be met jointly with my neighbors? So that we arrange to get a local school or church stocked with emergency food and water and auxiliary heating equipment?
Or do I need to get involved in a wider range of activities, as a public citizen? Do I pressure my local government, for example, to guarantee the emergency preparedness facilities it ought to have on hand in case of disaster anyway? Do I question my bank, utility, customers, vendors about their Year 2000 compliance?
The answer is that the smart and responsible citizen will do all of the above. Why?
Clearly, there's a responsibility to one's self and one's family to keep some basic supplies on hand _ enough for a week or two just in case some techno-glitch closes down a link in the long chain of food, water and electric current supply we all depend on.
Says Dennis Walter of the American Red Cross in St. Paul, Minn.: "If individuals refuse to make reasonable preparations to lessen the possible impact on themselves or family, I don't feel they have much right to criticize the preparedness efforts of others, or to expect someone else (government, for example) to save them."
Translation: The blame game won't work this time.
An equally bad idea: to go it alone, running off to the country. There are over 260-million people in the United States, notes Paloma O'Riley in a Y2K Citizen's Action Guide released by Utne Reader (www.utne.com/y2k): "You think you'll be the only one in the woods? They'll all be focused on their own survival, perhaps at the risk of yours."
There's a better way to make it through, O'Riley counsels: "Pull together as a community. Problems can't be escaped, they can only be dealt with. If you are concerned about your safety, the best means of securing it is to help your neighbor prepare, and work with your community to develop needed and appropriate plans."
This indeed is the point practically all who have studied the Y2K problem underscore. The computer-induced peril is balanced by the crisis' simultaneous power to spark the rebuilding of community, our capacity to survive in a high-tech, impersonalized world.
Most of today's Americans, says Eric Utne, editor of the Utne Reader, live in networks, not communities. Our chief ties are to people we work, study, hang out with; predominantly they're like us. Y2K will oblige us to work with all our neighbors, even ones we may find we don't like, figuring out shelter opportunities, ensuring heating supplies, thinking through emergency plans.
Timing becomes critical here. Smart folks won't wait until next December. "The midst of a disaster is the poorest possible time to establish new relationships," notes Elizabeth Dole, president of the Red Cross. "When you have taken the time to build rapport, then you can make a call at 2 a.m. and expect to launch a well-planned, smoothly conducted response."
It's true next Jan. 1 may come and go with few of the feared disruptions. Still, it's incredibly shortsighted not to move now with contingency planning _ just how we'll react, in neighborhoods, cities, regions, if electric, water, gas utilities, phones, food supplies, public safety, health care, medications are imperiled.
The alarming fact is that thousands of cities and counties haven't even begun Y2K planning. Vast numbers of businesses _ especially small ones _ seem oblivious to the potential dangers. The time for concerned individuals, neighborhoods, organizations to leap into the debate is now.
Why? Because, as Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson says: "This is one race where we all cross the finish line together."
Correction: The daily output of nitrous oxide in the Atlanta region given in the Dec. 21 column was vastly incorrect. The accurate figure is over 200 tons a day.
Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
Washington Post Writers Group