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NEAL PEIRCE Washington Post COLUMN (2)

Date: Fri, 30 Oct 1998 23:42:54 -0500
From: Neal Peirce <>
Subject: Column Transmission

To Colleagues: This is the second of two Year 2000 columns, but the topic is
so vital I'll return to it from time to time. Any input welcome!

You may wish to check notice on Bill Hudnut's fine new book on cities, plus
David Rusk's Kalamazoo report, on our web page ( --
Citistate Happenings)..

Best- N.P.

For Release Sunday, November 1, 1998

Copyright 1998 Washington Post Writers Group


By Neal R. Peirce

Head for a cabin in the hills with your Winchester, a stock of dehydrated
food, bottled water and your own gasoline-powered generator?
Or work with your neighbors to set up an emergency shelter, perhaps in a
local school or church, where folks could retreat for warmth, light and food
in case grievous emergencies develop?
That's the stark choice that the millennium bug -- the prospect of computers
and embedded memory chips unable to recognize a four-digit year, going haywire
on Jan. 1, 2000 -- may present to Americans.
From the people who know computer systems -- programmers, engineers,
government and business experts -- there's now a rising crescendo of warnings
about potentially grave Year 2000 ("Y2K") problems.
At best we can expect isolated equipment failures -- traffic lights
malfunctioning or short-term local power blackouts, for example.
But wholesale breakdowns could well occur: Longer electrical, gas and water
supply cutoffs. Phone systems inoperative. Fuel and heating oil shortages.
Failed rail and trucking networks, making it impossible for supermarkets to
restock their shelves.
The impact at the grassroots, in our everyday lives, could be profound. In
the words of Michael Hyatt, author of The Millennium Bug, "In previous
generations, emergency preparedness was a way of life. No one was seduced by
the ëmyth of continuity'; everyone assumed that life would be periodically
interrupted by crises. But many of us--particularly those of us who are baby
boomers--have never really had to face a widespread social crisis. War,
famine and pestilence are outside our realm of first-hand experience."
When he was a boy in rural Nebraska, Hyatt recalls, people had a storm
shelter and a pantry for protection against tornadoes and severe blizzards.
And neighbor was always ready to help neighbor.
Yet now news reports indicate a growing body of Y2K survivalists, people
laying in supplies of fuel and canned food and generators, planning a retreat
into their homes -- or cabins in the woods.
It's an alarming trend, suggests my colleague Curtis Johnson, chair of the
Metropolitan Council in Minneapolis-St. Paul: "If this event drives us into
deeper behavior of individualism, if our mentality is that every house is its
own Y2K fortress and my neighbor be damned, it will be as serious a calamity
as any technological failure."
The heartening news is that from the grassroots up, hundreds of local groups
are already organizing to raise Y2K awareness and explore how whole
communities can collaborate to weather even a period of severe crisis.
The Denver-based Cassandra Project, one of dozens of Y2K Internet sites, is a
national clearinghouse focused on community preparedness rather than
individual survivalism. Its web site ( has had over 1
million "hits."
"The Year 2000: Social Chaos or Social Transformation?" is the title of three
futurists' view of perils and possibilities
( Residents of all ages and
experience, they write, need to undertake community audits of potential
problems and contingencies to deal with each potential loss of service, from
utilities to food supplies, public safety to health care.
Indeed, this potential calamity could have the dividend of bringing people
together in neighborhoods where few residents today even know each other.
But we need to get specific fast about an emergency shelter for every
community -- and it ought to be schools, suggests Douglass Carmichael, a lead
Y2K consultant. The federal and state governments, he says, should quickly
appropriate funds and press to make sure schools can provide water, food,
cooking and a warm space through winter 2000.
One reason: schools -- as with hurricanes or floods -- are a familiar
emergency location in American culture.
Carmichael proposes rapid steps to authorize National Guard, even regular
armed forces help to get the schools ready.
The President, Carmichael argues, has to take the lead, telling the nation
there's potential for serious trouble, no one knows how serious, but we need
to be prepared for the worst.
Only with presidential leadership, Carmichael asserts, will Americans take
Y2K seriously enough soon enough to avert "massive hoarding" as an
increasingly panicy middle class, each family buying for itself, drives up
generator, food and fuel prices, triggering shortages and even opening
prospects of class warfare.
One's brought up short by such ideas: Can all this be serious? Check the
frivolous entertainment clogging tv channels, look at the media's political
coverage obsessed with posturing and the potential of presidential
impeachment, and you'd think you lived on a different planet.
But the people trying to focus us on Y2K perils are not nuts or fringe types:
they're serious technical, business, government leaders. We ignore at our
peril their alert of potential civic disruption and disorder.
Clear national leadership and vigorous grassroots initiatives are not
strangers to America. In World War II, both functioned superbly.
The challenge now, in an incredibly short time frame, is to gain our
attention -- and commitment.