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Neighborhoods and Y2K: The Toughest Connection


For Release Sunday, February 14, 1999
By Neal R. Peirce
Copyright 1999
Washington Post Writers Group


SPOKANE -- They may be technologically sophisticated, far-sighted, good- hearted.

But right now, barely 10 months before the millennium turn, proponents of neighborhood preparedness for potential Year 2000 computer-triggered emergencies find themselves in a tough struggle for credibility.

Take Spokane, one of America's more advanced Y2K towns. Several Y2K neighborhood groups are active. Their efforts have been legitimized by a city-county Y2K task force that's received endorsements from local government leaders, the city police and county sheriff, the chamber of commerce and major local utility. Editors Judy Laddon and Larry Shook of "Awakening: The Upside of Y2K" make their homes here. So does futurist Robert Theobald, a lead spokesperson for U.S. and global Y2K awareness.

But meet with a handful of Spokane's grassroots Y2K organizers and you hear:

"We have to be willing to look like fools."

"One lawyer here said of Y2K-- I'd rather be embarrassed than sorry.' But in fact a lot of people would rather be sorry than embarrassed."

"Y2K preparations are about as easy to sell as hail insurance."

"It's tough to get people to focus on shared community welfare around an issue that lacks clear and definable risk."

When a leading Spokane minister and his wife tried to get the city's churches to collaborate on a Y2K initiative, most of the clergy turned them down.

Belatedly, perhaps, but now at increased speed, America's array of utilities, transportation and financial service firms, plus our major city and county governments, are focusing hard on Y2K preparedness.

And most of us applaud that. A recent nationwide survey, conducted by the University of Connecticut's Center for Survey Research and Analysis, shows 53 percent of Americans believe Y2K is "one of the most important issues facing the country right now."

But will corporate and government steps be enough? Tiny programming or code errors in imbedded chips could cause severe glitches on and around 1/1/2000. It's still possible -- even if unlikely -- that entire regions could be hit by power losses or failure of food supply, fresh water or sewage disposal systems.

If that occurred, a big chunk of pulling through would fall back on neighbor-to-neighbor assistance.

But so far, there's little evidence that more than a handful among the nation's hundreds of thousands of neighborhoods are getting ready in any meaningful fashion.

Sure, check the Internet and you'll find what seems like a wild proliferation of groups trumpeting the perils of Y2K, recommending survival techniques, advocating grassroots preparedness.

But specifics on neighborhood-based preparations are very thin. There seem to be islands of neighborhood conversation, but little real action. In Spokane, for example, there's been talk of neighborhoods setting up "hub houses" equipped with alternative heat, food storage and other basics -- but no real action to make it happen.

So why so little action?

No one has a fix on how serious the perils really are. "It would be easier if we could predict an earthquake next year," said one of the Spokane neighborhood activists. "People know what an earthquake is, not what a Y2K is."

Media reports sensationalizing the Y2K peril -- lurid tales of gun-toting survivalists, predictions of global disaster -- may actually give people a convenient excuse to "turn off" the story.

Paloma O'Riley, co-founder of the Colorado-based Cassandra Project, the premier Y2K community-preparedness web site, takes issue with the survivalist pitch in media coverage. She told the Seattle Times that 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."

Reluctance to organize flows from the widespread belief in our culture that technology -- or some "them" in the corporate or government world -- will come galloping to the rescue in any crisis. We seem too often oblivious to the brittleness of extraordinarily interdependent electric power grids and globalized markets, transportation, telecommunications, and the lack of prudent stockpiling driven by profit demands of "just-in-time" manufacturing.

What I did hear from the Spokane Y2K activists were two powerful reasons for timely neighborhood organizing.

The first is that grassroots organizing creates community resilience -- the capacity to deal with any kind of crisis, from an ice storm, to earthquake, to a prolonged power outage that might have nothing at all to do with Y2K.

Second, prepared neighborhoods will have a web of support for the elderly, small children, anyone who has difficulty coping alone.

Neighbors that know each other, that learn mutual assistance, are stronger on every front from crime prevention to dealing with city hall, neighborhood beautification to fending off unwelcome new highways.

Still, it takes a real leap of faith today to believe that significant numbers of American neighborhoods will use the golden opportunity of this year to get ready -- either for Y2K, or for the century dawning on them.