A year ago, the experts warned that Y2K could bring disaster, doom and gloom, computer meltdown. ATMs would fail. Water taps would run dry. The lights would go out across America.
But that apocalyptic vision now seems overblown, because so many fixes have been made. With less than three weeks to go before the new year, the experts wish people were a little more jazzed up about Y2K preparations. Reasonable precautions are urged, but few households have made them yet.
Hardware stores, camping-gear suppliers and supermarkets are seeing a slight uptick in business this month, as customers hunt and gather canned food, lanterns and other supplies in case of a Y2K computer glitch. But many others appear to be ignoring the standard advice to prepare for Y2K as for a winter snowstorm, with a few extra touches.
"In a way, this is good. It means people are not acting irrationally," said Cathy Hotka, vice president of the National Retail Federation. "[But] it does raise the question of whether people will do prudent preparations in advance."
Hotka and others worry that people suddenly will realize Y2K is coming on, say, Dec. 28 and overwhelm the stores, just as they do when a snowstorm is forecast. Or that everyone will pick up the phone at midnight on Dec. 31 to see whether it still works, and clog the system. The Y2K glitch will be called the villain, even if it's not justified.
"Everything that happens during this, Y2K is going to be blamed," James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said this week. "Truck turns over on the interstate, and Y2K gets blamed. . . . People panicking could cause more of a problem than Y2K itself."
Witt says his agency and others have worked hard to make sure there are no major disasters stemming from older computers' confusing the date "2000" with the date "1900" because they were programmed to recognize only two-digit years. Even the most confident officials, though, say there will be scattered problems, so they urge some basic, just-in-case preparations.
Here are some supplies that Witt and other federal Y2K experts think it's reasonable to have on hand: bottled water, canned food, a manual can opener, flashlights, spare batteries, copies of medical and financial records.
Here are examples of going too far: extra ammunition, miracle $25 software, signing up with a door-to-door salesman who offers to fix your coffee maker's Y2K problem.
Retailers who sell items on the must-have Y2K preparation list say they have ordered extra supplies of water, batteries and the like. "Giant is fully ready," spokesman Barry Scher said. "We have contingency plans."
Even people whose business it is to sell camping items sound awfully reasonable about Y2K.
"These are things that people should have in their homes anyway," said Harvey Kramer, president of Ranger Surplus, a Washington area chain of outdoor and survival stores. "You should have a way to see in the dark, and you should be prepared for when the power goes out in the wintertime."
Kramer said his stores have done a steady business, building a bit this month, in bottled water, lanterns, camping stoves and even cases of military-style meals-ready-to-eat. The same is true at Fischer's Hardware in Springfield.
"I don't think most people are worried about it," general manager Jim Bowe said. "If you are out in the middle of no place, maybe. But if you are in the city . . . I think there's a little too much hype, myself."
At the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter for the homeless in the District, donors have given an ample supply of bottled water and food, President Terri Bishop said. And if the lights go out, "then we are fine. It's better than being on the street."
Among her homeowner neighbors on Capitol Hill, Bishop said, "I don't think people are concerned about it. [But] I think there will be a little bit of a panic at the end" of the year.
People certainly are seeking information about Y2K. A toll-free federal hot line operated under contract to the General Services Administration (1-888-USA-4-Y2K) has received 220,000 calls since it opened in January. It will be open round-the-clock Dec. 31.
The No. 1 topic for callers is "personal preparedness," said Diane Savoy, director of GSA's agency-wide compliance program. The second-most popular topic is how well prepared the government is for Y2K. Third is "telecommunications issues"--will the phone, cable TV or radio work properly? Fourth is banking. Fifth is the food supply.
The answers they get are intended to be reassuring, and that may be why "it's not on the radar screen for people that much," said Bob Olson, research director for the Institute for Alternative Futures in Alexandria, whose job is to think about what comes next.
"A year ago, I was really expecting by late December that this would be the great preoccupation of American society and there would be a number of signs of panic," Olson said. "I feel like I've been more wrong about this than almost any social prognostication that I've been involved in.
"I'm really amazed. A lot of it comes from the alarms being loud enough and vivid enough that it contributed to efforts to get it [Y2K fixes] all done."
The Reasonable Person's Y2K Guide
What supplies should you have on hand in case there are Y2K problems? The same food and equipment you would keep for a weather emergency, according to federal Y2K experts, as well as up-to-date financial and medical records.
* Bottled water (a gallon per person per day).
* At least three days' worth of nonperishable, ready-to-eat food.
* Flashlights, battery-operated radio, extra batteries.
* Extra supplies for infants, the elderly or others with special needs.
* Make sure your car's gas tank is more than half full.
* Enough cash for a couple of days, but not too much because of the risk of theft.
* Check with the manufacturer whether computers, security systems, programmable thermostats and other home equipment are Y2K-compatible.
* More information is available on the Internet at www.y2k.gov.
SOURCE: Federal Emergency Management Agency, President's Council on Y2K Conversion.