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Howard County on Y2K: Be Prepared, Not Scared

By Linda Perlstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 1999; Page M1

Russ Doupnick, who is in charge of Howard County's information systems, said that regarding computer problems that might arise at the chime of midnight Dec. 31, 1999, "We've got a handle on the large ones."

Tim Kelly, of Howard County General Hospital, said only one biomedical device and five small projects are not year 2000 compliant and proclaimed himself "cautiously optimistic."

David Hartmann, Maryland's Y2K program director, announced that 85 percent of the state government's personal computers have passed the millennium test.

And Margaret Murphy, a branch vice president of the Federal Reserve, said that of the nation's 10,108 banks and thrifts, only 19--and none in Maryland--"still have work to do."

In all these comforting words issued at Monday night's "Community Conversation" on the millennium glitch, one was unspoken:

"Yikes."

The theme of the meeting was: Don't freak out, but don't be unprepared, either.

Afterward, though, many residents pointed out how easy it was for uncertainty to squeak through: Er, is that one biomedical device keeping anyone alive? What about the other 15 percent of PCs? Who owes me money and has an account at one of those 19 banks?

The problem--which programmers have been working fervently to fix--is that computers coded with two-digit dates will think it is 1900 instead of 2000 at the turn of the century and might crash.

There is no global consensus about whether a crack in the system will lead to total failure; there, too, is a fine line between alarmism and preparedness. But the 14 panelists in the Howard Building seemed united that consequences will be minor--disrupting utilities and commerce for at most a couple of days, if at all.

"The power will flow. The toilets will flush. The business will run," avowed County Executive James N. Robey (D). "In my opinion, we have been through Y2K before. We called it Agnes. Hurricane David. The ice storm last year."

Madeleine Greene, from the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension Services, offered a presentation that sounded like what one might see on "Martha Stewart Bunker Living." "If in fact we plan," Greene said, "we should have a certain level of comfort."

Residents were told to prepare as if for a long weekend without utilities, keeping on hand food (no older than six months, even if canned), water (a gallon a person a day) and batteries.

Gas the car, Greene said, and fill your freezer with ice, so it can act as a cooler if power dies. Baby food, Spam and canned beans can be eaten cold.

Greene said to keep personal documents--such as wills and insurance statements--on hand and prescriptions filled.

One woman, a Clarksville business owner who did not give her name in the meeting and didn't want it printed, spoke up and challenged the panel.

"Comparing that event to a winter storm is highly irresponsible," she said. By downplaying what she believes is a more severe threat, she continued, "all we are doing is delaying problems, not eliminating problems."

"Why don't you give us full information," she insisted, "not limited information censored by you?"

"Everything we've given you is fact," Robey countered. "We have done our homework, and we don't think anything will happen."

But that woman, and the dozen others who continued a discussion later (about portable toilets, 50-pound bags of rice, in-ground propane tanks, pulling retirement money from stocks to bonds), said that even if Howard does its homework, it can't control what will happen in the rest of the world--what will happen, say, if a glitch in Venezuela disrupts the flow of oil to the United States, if a glitch in Germany misroutes a payment to her firm?

John Maldovan, of Jessup, said the public should be making far more serious preparations than the panel suggested, but, he said, "anything helps."

But residents found it hard to sort out some messages. For example, Police Chief G. Wayne Livesay said that the county will have quadruple the typical police force on duty on New Year's but that he didn't expect unrest.

At the same time, Murphy, of the Federal Reserve, cautioned against stashing away money, saying that robbers will pay attention to Y2K, too.

And then there was this from Donora Dingman, a Bell Atlantic representative: The phone company is "99.9 percent compliant," but still, she said, "you might want to look around for one of those old telephone sets that are virtually indestructible, that don't require electricity to work."

So forget about a run on the banks.

The real lines are going to be at the antique stores.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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