Y2K? Y Indeed, Many Shrug
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 1999; Page A1
A year ago, the leaders of the Northern Virginia Year 2000 Community Action Group envisioned themselves as modern-day Civil Defense "block wardens," preparing their neighbors for the chaos that the Y2K computer glitch would unleash.
They planned to offer training sessions on stockpiling food, purifying water and girding for long-term power outages. Expecting ever-greater public anxiety over year-end computer failures, the group awaited a willing army of volunteers, eager to pass out fliers, share tips on installing wood stoves and drive neighbors to Costco for cases of canned tuna.
But now, five months from the moment of truth, many of those efforts have been scrapped. Not because the leaders suddenly feel that Y2K will be a non-event -- they are as fearful as ever. They just haven't been able to convince their neighbors.
Last year, the Northern Virginia group had more than 40 regular participants. Now, it barely draws a dozen people to its meetings, and several recent "What Is Y2K?" introductory sessions, intended to bring new faces into the fold, have failed to lure a single attendee.
"People have become very complacent about Y2K," bemoaned Jay Golter, the group's president. "They think the problem has been solved, so they don't want to hear us talking about storing food and making other preparations."
Golter's predicament is similar to that of year 2000 community groups across the country. Such organizations, formed by volunteers concerned that Y2K could disrupt nearly every aspect of daily life, now find themselves unable to attract and retain members as public confidence in the massive global computer-repair effort grows.
In Elverson, Pa., the Daniel Boone Y2K Preparedness Group decided to take the summer off because, its founder says, "not too many folks show up." In Freeport, Maine, the Y2K community organization has scotched plans to bring in a speaker from the Red Cross because of lackluster participation. And along California's central coast, a Y2K community group actually disbanded earlier this year after "everyone got bored with the subject," said Bill Seavey, who initially organized the effort.
"It's a tough sell," said Stephen Brown, who heads the group in Freeport. "People think everything will be just fine."
Y2K community groups in Potomac, Silver Spring and Southern Maryland also have seen a precipitous drop in attendance in recent months. The Southern Maryland Millennium Action Committee, for instance, had more than 350 people at its inaugural meeting in January but only 25 at its gathering last month.
The year 2000 problem, commonly known as Y2K, stems from the fact that millions of computers, as well as microchips in many electronic devices, were programmed to recognize only the last two digits of a year, assuming that the first two would be 1 and 9. On Jan. 1, 2000, unprepared machines will understand the year "00" not as 2000 but as 1900, potentially causing them to shut down or stop working properly.
Just how disruptive Y2K will be remains in dispute. Many technology experts contend that large businesses and government agencies have made remarkable strides in fixing their electronic systems and appear to be on track to enter the new year with few difficulties. But other specialists say glitches probably will cause computer failures in early January, possibly affecting the flow of goods and services worldwide.
Most Y2K community activists remain skeptical of official pronouncements that all will be well. But with recent polls showing that a clear majority of Americans -- 84 percent, according to an Associated Press survey -- expect minor problems or none at all come January, the groups find themselves facing a more immediate crisis of their own.
Golter this summer sent e-mail to his members, telling them that the "original goals of NOVA Y2K are no longer achievable" and that "our credibility in the eyes of others is diminished by our inability to draw people to our cause." He urged members to gather for a soul-searching meeting where they would try to get a handle on what they've been doing wrong and figure out how, in the few remaining months, to convince their neighbors of the impending calamity.
Golter sent the e-mail to about 900 people on the group's mailing list. He passed out 1,000 fliers about the meeting at the Franconia-Springfield Metro station. He arranged to hold the session in a 150-seat auditorium in a Tysons Corner office building. He expected a big turnout.
But on a recent Monday night, Golter finds himself standing before a scant 16 people. Undeterred, he launches into his introduction.
"We started a year and a half ago with all these grand visions," says Golter, 43, an Alexandria resident who works as a financial analyst for the federal government. "We were going to get all of our neighborhoods organized. We were going to work with government officials and schools and churches. But it's pretty late in the day to be successful with that."
Nowadays, Golter says, he gets e-mail from group members saying, "I've given up on my neighbors and friends. They laugh at me. I just want to know how to store beans."
The intimate group gathered in the Tysons building is a cross-section of Northern Virginia: federal workers, computer programmers, church leaders, housewives, a former grass-roots organizer for the firearms lobby. There are eight men and eight women. The men wear short-sleeve dress shirts. Everyone has a note pad and pen. Someone circulates an article from a newspaper food section with recipes featuring Spam, tuna, beans and other commonly stockpiled products.
Before beginning the discussion, Golter pauses to peddle a few cut-rate books. A tome titled "How to 2000," list price $50, now just $10. A Y2K "Investors Survival Guide," marked $25, yours for $10. Proceeds go toward the group's expenses. But there are no takers.
Golter hands the meeting over to Ray Strackbein, one of the group's most active members. Fearing the worst, Ray and his wife, Sally, both of whom work in the technology industry, have stockpiled dozens of cans of tuna, sausages and Spam, not to mention dried beans and Velveeta, in their Fairfax County basement.
Sally has written a cookbook titled "Y2K Kitchen" containing recipes for "Beanie Spammie" and "Bean and Spam Soup" and "Beans Beans Beans Salad." (She hawks the book on the Internet.) The couple have become minor celebrities in the Y2K world: Their preparations have been mentioned by NBC News, Fox News, even Hungarian television.
Armed with a felt-tip pen and a large easel, Strackbein solicits ideas about how to save the organization.
The first to pipe up is a man sitting in the front row, Aldric Saucier, who identifies himself as a physicist and a newcomer to the group. "I've got a problem with this Y2K thing," Saucier says. "I want to see the proof there's going to be a problem."
Strackbein frowns and looks toward Golter. "Falls Church is going to have a tricentennial festival," Golter says, changing the subject. "We should try to have a presence at that event."
The physicist's skepticism goes unaddressed.
A woman who says she is representing Calvary Road Baptist Church in Alexandria explains how the congregation is buying a generator and setting up a small food stockpile. She suggests the group work more actively with churches.
Another woman urges group members to attend a series of town meetings sponsored by Fairfax County's government. She suggests that public officials be prodded with questions: "Where are the food-distribution centers? Where are the shelters?"
And then the physicist tries again. "I don't believe this is a big problem at all," Saucier says. "I think there's a lot of hype here."
This time, his comments aren't ignored. "You're throwing water on our meeting here," retorts a visibly annoyed Strackbein.
"We want to get together in a room of people who don't think we are nuts," adds Gail Fialkow, the group's treasurer.
The physicist's doubts hit group members exactly in their most vulnerable spot. With five months to go, they wonder whether they should spend their precious time trying to convince unbelievers or preaching to the proverbial choir, providing support to people who want to prepare.
Although their proselytizing often is met with outright derision, most members don't want to retreat from that effort. After all, says Golter, the reason they formed a group instead of heading to the hills like many other Y2K pessimists was to help their neighbors.
"We're not individualists," Golter says. "We're not interested in helping people find land in West Virginia. One of the very fundamental goals of our organization is to support the community."
Golter and his fellow members believe their neighbors have received "irresponsibly optimistic" assessments from politicians and the news media about the progress of Y2K repairs at big businesses and government agencies.
The group aims to push its perspective into view with grass-roots techniques: pass out fliers, show up at community events and use the Internet. "We could have a march on the Mall," says Susan Attas, a computer scientist who lives in Vienna.
"Would that be a 10-person march?" Fialkow asks sardonically.
One man suggests creating a "Y2K haunted house" at Halloween to demonstrate the impact of a loss of electricity and other services on one family.
The group then wonders whether its message is too extreme for the masses. Instead of advising people to store several months' worth of food, why not initially suggest stashing away enough for a week, which is what the Red Cross recommends, another man says. Then, after people start stockpiling, members can urge them to increase their cache, he says.
"I think we need to monitor our language," Attas says. "I leave every meeting feeling scared even though I've been preparing." She suggests they describe what they are doing as an "insurance policy." "We have life insurance and health insurance and car insurance. Storing food and water is Y2K insurance."
And, she adds, if nothing happens, "you can eat your insurance premium."
After generating four pages of ideas on the easel, Strackbein injects a dose of reality. "We can't even get a brochure published because the same four people have to do it." Money is also an issue. The group's request for a grant from the Center for Y2K and Society, which has funded other community organizations, recently was turned down.
Eventually, the members decide to focus on a big "preparedness event" in October. It's not clear what the event will entail, but the group will spend the intervening weeks trying to get people to attend.
"It's disappointing and frustrating," Golter said after the meeting. "We had all these great things we wanted to do." But he believes there's still time to make a difference. "Our neighbors may not be listening to us just yet. But we're not giving up on them."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company