The Millennium's coming! Run for the hills!

That would be the New York parody of the American hinterlands preparing for the new year, a jab at those places where people fear the potential for Y2K mayhem or religious doom. But not here, not New York. New Yorkers are too cool, too worldly wise--so says Brian Cohen, head of New York's Y2K project, with a common East Coast bias.

"I don't want to say New Yorkers are more educated, but New Yorkers don't react that way," he says. "New York City people are more the people, like, 'Okay. We got a problem? We'll deal with it.' They're not as reactionary as some people out West may be."

Really? Then just who's buying up all the gas masks down at the Trader survival store on Canal Street? Morris Kumar, a store manager, said some customers are talking about Y2K fears. And what about those MREs--meals ready to eat--that are selling briskly at Kaufman's Army & Navy on 42nd Street? And there's that very large Wall Street investment firm that took delivery a few days ago of 110 survival kits with emergency blankets, flashlights, water and pocket knives. Stocking stuffers? The person who placed the order won't say and didn't appreciate being asked.

If none of that suggests the obvious--that some folks here in New York are getting anxious about Y2K--then there's this: The New York Police Department is preparing for Y2K as if it were getting ready for a siege, laying in 30-day stores of MREs, fuel and mobile generators.

The fact is that in New York--more than in any other city--with its mega-population, centrality to global commerce and trendsetting status, no one really knows what 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1 will bring. Officials have prepared for any eventuality, from perfect calm and joyousness to Y2K-triggered blackouts, fear-induced riots or terrorist attacks.

The stakes are high, for city safety and city image, but also because of the cascading impact that New York mayhem would have on other cities still awaiting the millennium.

"Well, obviously, if we go dark, it's going to set the tone," said Jerome Hauer, director of the city's Office of Emergency Management.

Hauer and other officials already are disturbed by reports about what they view as overreaction to the potential for a crisis.

"I've heard of people leaving town," Hauer said. "I've heard of people going up to the mountains, getting out of the city. I've heard of people stocking up on food, on gas masks. Last week in the [New York] Post, they had a two-page ad for apartment port-a-potties."

Hauer also believes that trouble, if it comes, is more likely to stem from human fear than technological failures.

"I think if anything happens it'll be very localized, and the potential for being a man-made problem is greater," he said.

For instance, he said, if there is trouble abroad--like a blackout in such places as Sydney or London or a shutdown of automated teller machine services there--local people will no doubt fear that it will happen here as well.

Another man-made scenario Hauer has dealt with is what happens if the city's commercial property owners power down a cluster of skyscrapers, then try to re-power them simultaneously.

"If three or four of these power up all at once and put a drain on a transformer and a transformer blows, we have a localized problem," Hauer said.

Even a manhole fire could spark panic. Though they happen all the time during the winter, a manhole fire around the new year could be construed as something sinister.

"If it happens New Year's Eve, it'll be [perceived as] either terrorists or Y2K," Hauer said.

On the technological side, New York officials speak with confidence about their readiness. The city has spent $300 million to correct the problems that could occur if computers read "00" as "1900" instead of "2000." Cohen's preparedness team has identified nearly 700 critical computer systems in all 43 city agencies and inspected 65 million lines of computer code to correct glitches that were likely to occur. Officials believe the city's critical systems--power, telephones and the like--will not fail.

If computer problems do occur, the city has a 60-member "swat team" of Y2K technology experts poised to pursue and fix them. It also has elevator rescue teams for people who get stuck.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) will preside over his domain from a Mission Control-like emergency management command center on the 23rd floor of the World Trade Center, where every city agency will be represented and monitored on 80 computer screens and 32 television monitors. The center was finished earlier this year at a cost of $13 million.

Aside from the technological threat, there is also the threat of terrorism of various kinds, by apocalyptic doomsday cults or political groups, heretofore unknown terror cells or a deranged individual or two. Police Commissioner Howard Safir, who co-chairs a terrorist task force with the FBI here, said the police have no intelligence suggesting a terrorist threat is imminent in New York.

The only odd group of which police are aware is the Concerned Christians doomsday sect from Denver, whose members recently were deported from Israel for fear they would cause millennial violence. They were then deported from Greece for the same reason. Some of their members arrived in New York earlier this month, Safir said.

"We track these people. We make sure we know who they are and what they're doing," Safir said. "But if they're not breaking the law, there's nothing we can do about it."

Except be ready. Nearly 20,000 police will be on the streets New Year's Eve, with about 7,000 of them concentrated in the Times Square area, where the largest millennial event will be held: the dropping of the giant ball signaling the dawn of a new year.

Each cop will have hand-held, chemically illuminated lights, should a power failure occur. A blackout also would be fought by the hundreds of light packs to be mounted atop police cruisers, each able to light up a city block. There also will be 20 mobile light trucks and 15 generator trucks, with each generator strong enough to power critical functions at a hospital.

Crowd control will be the most important aspect of policing that night. The Times Square event will attract as many as 2 million people, and events at Flushing Meadow in Queens and Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn together will draw more than a million people.

"We're doing everything from gathering a lot of intelligence for potential terrorist threats with the FBI and CIA, right down to making sure that in every event there are emergency [traffic] lanes so that emergency vehicles can get through," Safir said.

Kathleen Tierney, a sociologist and co-director of the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center, said it is the job of police and emergency management officials to prepare for the worst, but that does not mean the worst will happen.

And contrary to the portrait of easily panicked people that is often put forward in disaster movies, real-life behavior as well as studies show that people behave very differently and often rise to the occasion in disaster situations.

"Good people don't become bad people, reasonable people don't become unreasonable," she said. "Everything we know about the way people behave in situations like that indicates that people react very well."

Safir cited the recent summertime blackout in the city's Washington Heights section of Manhattan, which affected 800,000 people. Despite its potential for looting and other mayhem, the blackout produced neither. Instead, he recalled, the community pulled together with emergency services to assist those in need.

"Quite honestly, I shouldn't say this, but it was actually a fun night," he said.

Such crises have made New York--like many big cities--skilled in emergency preparedness. Noting New York's record of handling huge events and huge problems ranging from blackouts to terrorist attacks to global heads of state gathered at the United Nations, Safir said, "The reality is we've done a lot of this. If there's any place that should be prepared for it, it's us."

Why Worry?

New York has spent $300 million fixing potential Y2K glitches, but if computers go down, public safety systems will still operate.

911: Backup manual operation system in place if computerized system fails.

Fire engines: Water pumping system is gravity-fed and shouldn't be affected.

Heart defibrillators: All are manual or semi-automatic and won't be affected.

Fire alarm boxes: The system was installed before the Fire Department installed computers and shouldn't be affected.

Police: About 20,000 police will be on the streets on New Year's Eve.

Each local precinct, police headquarters and the Metro Tech Center will have backup generators.

All officers will carry hand-held chemical-powered lights.

Twenty mobile light trucks and 15 generator trucks will be on hand.

SOURCE: New York City Mayor's Office