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© 1999 Michael S. Hyatt

Far too much emphasis has been placed on midnight, Dec. 31, 1999. It is as if the Year 2000 Computer Problem is an explosive device set to detonate at that very moment. The image in many people’s minds — straight out of an action movie thriller — is that of a hidden time bomb, relentlessly counting down the seconds, and at the moment it clicks to “0,” a cataclysmic explosion erupts with a deafening roar.

It may come as a surprise for some people, but it is entirely likely that things will appear normal when we wake up on the morning of Jan. 1. This is because Y2K is an ongoing process much more than it is a single event.

Now, of course, if you live in an area which is hit by a Y2K-related power outage, water system failure, or chemical plant accident (just to name a few possibilities), New Year’s Day very well may seem like a movie — a disaster flick. But for most folks, at least in the United States, the initial days of the Year 2000 might be little different than the final days of 1999.

President Clinton’s federal Y2K czar, John Koskinen, predicts a national “sigh of relief” in the early hours of Jan. 1, as the basic infrastructure of our society remains intact and operational. Koskinen’s implication is that except for some scattered electronic failures during the first few weeks of 2000, the successful rollover to Jan. 1 will mean that the Y2K problem has been conquered.

I agree with Koskinen (one of the very few times!) that a national sigh of relief is possible on Jan. 1. But this will in no way indicate the Y2K problem has been “conquered” and that we are out of the woods.

Some commentators take delight in deriding those of us who have prepared for millennium bug disruptions, sarcastically asking what we are going to do with large stockpiles of food, water, and fuel on Jan. 2. “Boy, you’re going to feel pretty foolish with your basement full of rice and beans when the power stays on in January,” is the general sentiment.

If the basic utilities remain intact and operational in your area during the first week of January, I suggest you avoid the temptation to sell off your supplies or give them away.

Y2K is not a one-time event. It is not a yes-or-no situation, with Jan. 1 being either a disaster or a non-event. The Y2K problem is not like a car cruising down the highway and suddenly hitting a cement wall. It is more like a car cruising down the highway, and then the highway turns into 20 miles of dirt road. The car begins to shudder and must slow down. Although the car is still moving, it is not moving nearly as smoothly and efficiently as before.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) sent an open letter to Congress earlier this year about the Y2K phenomenon, which said, in part, “Y2K is a long-term, not short-term, problem. … Y2K is much more about the dates that can span the century boundary represented in data that must be processed by software, than it is about any calendar time or clock issues … it will take years for the infrastructure to ‘calm down’ after Y2K impacts.”

Bruce McConnell is the director of the International Y2K Cooperation Center, an information clearinghouse sponsored by the World Bank and the United Nations. In an October 1999 interview, McConnell said, “Y2K-caused effects on daily life will be complex and more chronic than acute.” He explained that a picture is emerging of failures that may bounce slowly from one sector to another. When the Year 2000 arrives, according to McConnell, we are likely to see “a growing slowdown in commerce as capacity is reduced by a confluence of degraded infrastructure performance and shaky consumer confidence.”

Mike Fletcher, a Y2K consultant, speaker and author, has spent the past few years traveling around the globe helping various corporations and government agencies deal with the Year 2000 problem. In a recent Internet column, Fletcher discussed a video conference in which he participated. During the conference, a representative of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) said there are 24 million small businesses in this country, with “small business” being defined as any company with 500 employees or less. When we reach January 2000, according to the SBA, approximately 8 million of these small businesses will be fully ready for Y2K, 8 million will have done enough repair work to muddle through, and 8 million will have done nothing to address the problem and will be at risk of failure.

Even if you assume the at-risk companies are very small businesses, with only a few employees each, this still means there are tens-of-millions of U.S. jobs which are threatened by Y2K. So even if the basic utilities remain intact in early January — power, phones, water and sewer, banks, etc. — Y2K problems could slowly and steadily wreak havoc on the economy as we move through the Year 2000 and beyond. As Bruce McConnell explains, the fallout from Y2K glitches could eat away at economies for months.

This is why a stockpile of emergency supplies will still be valuable next year even if the worst-case scenarios do not come to pass. Despite the ribbing you may have to endure from neighbors and friends because you decided to store up supplies, your stash of goods will come in handy if:

  • Selected products become unavailable. Even the most optimistic forecasters admit global supply chains will be impacted by the Y2K problem. It may not be life-threatening, but a temporary shortage of, say, coffee or toilet paper will be a major inconvenience. The items you accumulate during 1999 surely will not go to waste next year.

  • Prices skyrocket. As we saw with the oil crisis in the early 1970s, a small reduction in supply can have a drastic effect on price. Every industry, not just the oil business, is threatened by Y2K disruptions. The prices for certain key products could double or triple, or worse, if the disruptions are significant. Anything you can acquire now, at 1999 prices, may turn out to be a tremendous bargain by next year.

  • You lose your job. Even without the looming Y2K problem, many experts say our economy is due to cool off. When Y2K is factored in, the current economic good times could suddenly become a distant memory. It’s a fact: when the economy slows down, many people lose their jobs. Having a sizable stockpile of food, water, and fuel won’t pay your mortgage or find you a new job, but it just may reduce some of the anxieties and solve some of the problems that often accompany unemployment.

It would be nice if we could know the full impact of Y2K by Jan. 2, 2000. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The full impact of this unprecedented situation will not be known for quite some time. Regardless of how it turns out — and don’t get me wrong, severe life-threatening breakdowns are still a distinct possibility — it is wise to make preparations.

The supplies you accumulate now may be needed to protect the health and safety of your loved ones. Or they may be used simply to make your life a bit more comfortable next year. Either way, the only foolish Y2K preparation you can make is the decision to do nothing.

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