Manassas Park is bracing for the worst winter storm of the century: the digital natural disaster known as Y2K.
It's not the city's computer systems, which are all Y2K compliant, but what's outside its control that worries Manassas Park officials.
"What do we do if another municipality doesn't prepare for Y2K? How do we prepare for that?" asked City Council member William J. Treuting Jr. "The city has got everything covered internally, but the majority of our electricity and natural gas--the essential items--come from outside. How do we make sure the city is able to stay in business?"
Manassas Park isn't thinking of misprocessed parking tickets; it's worried about week-long power outages.
"We're basically preparing for Y2K like we would for a natural disaster," said Treuting, who heads a City Council committee charged with preparing Manassas Park for the worst.
In August, Treuting's committee will recommend that the city be prepared to convert its new $13.5 million high school into a temporary shelter to help residents weather the forecasted digital storm.
"I'm originally from New Orleans, and I'm used to the hurricane season, so I know how hard it is to anticipate what's going to happen," Treuting said. "We're not forecasting gloom and doom and we're not trying to scare anybody, but it's prudent that we have a plan in our hip pocket.
"Hopefully," he added, "that's where it will stay."
The proposed shelter would be used by city residents if their power and heat fail.
"There are things beyond the city limits that the city relies on, like utilities," said Jack L. Brock Jr., an information systems director at the U.S. General Accounting Office. "If there's a power outage, the city would be responsible for the well-being and health of its residents."
North Virginia Electric Cooperative (Novec), which provides electricity to Manassas Park, and Columbia Gas, one of the city's natural gas providers, have both been preparing for a possible year 2000 computer glitch since 1997. Novec estimates it has spent $10 million on Y2K readiness.
Still, both companies acknowledge there could be complications, and they plan to have extra personnel available during the new year.
"I don't believe the likelihood for a massive power outage is great, but I can't guarantee that," said Mike Curtis, a Novec spokesman. "People should be prepared, period--regardless if it's a winter storm or a problem with Y2K."
Jack Gribben, a spokesman for the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, an umbrella organization overseeing Y2K transition across the country, said he thinks it is "not likely we'll have disruptions in power grids nationally." But he does expect there might be short-term outages in sporadic locations.
Even if there is a power outage, officials at Columbia Gas are confident they can continue service.
"The process of delivering natural gas is primarily mechanical, and our electrical systems are designed to operate with manual overrides," said Mike Anderson, a Columbia Gas spokesman. "So even if there's an outage, you can cook and heat your house and maybe even take a warm shower."
Anderson said that last December an ice storm knocked out power in the Richmond area for as long as two weeks, yet throughout the company provided natural gas.
At 100,000 square feet, Manassas Park High School on Euclid Avenue is the largest publicly owned building in the city. The facility has a student capacity of 650. With families sleeping on gym floors and cramming into classrooms and hallways, the building should be able to shelter about 1,000--more than a tenth of the city's 9,000 residents.
Because it would be the dead of winter, the city is also investigating ways to provide heat. A generator capable of fully heating the facility could cost as much as half a million dollars. But the city could rent a smaller generator for several thousand dollars.
Still, the most significant cost likely will be paying overtime for public safety officers. The city's 14 police officers are required to be on call throughout the first week of January.
On New Year's Day, police plan to call all of the city's elderly residents and those with disabilities to make sure they are safe.
But even if fears over Y2K are little more than hot air, the money and time used for contingency planning will be well spent.
"If there isn't any Y2K disaster, it's very possible the city gets hit with a blizzard," said Marc Wolfson, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "It's always valuable to have a better understanding of community needs in any disaster situation."
Manassas Park officials are not sure whether the city can provide shelter for more than 1,000 people. They hope residents will not rely solely on government shelters and are advising them to stock up on bottled water and alternative fuels such as firewood and propane.
"You never know what will surprise you," Shorter said. "There are no known variables out there. Y2K could be nothing, or it could be a disaster. It's incredibly difficult to plan for.
"Some people will build a bomb shelter and stock enough food for months, while others will bury their heads in the sand and not prepare at all," Shorter said.
"Even with this shelter, if the whole city is in trouble, we are,too."