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Cover story

Preparing for the worst

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

It has been called everything from a high-tech Armageddon to a mere blip on the nation’s comfort screen, but it is clear from Internet activity, individual preparations and a flurry of media reports that a lot more people are taking the year 2000 computer bug (now commonly referred to as Y2K) seriously as the turn of the century looms. In a few years, the worldwide discussion has evolved from whether the millennial bug will ever materialize to how bad its bite will be.

Churches, largely Protestant but some Catholic, have begun to realize that they may have a major role to play if mainframe computers around the world crash because they cannot recognize the date 2000 and society tumults into turmoil, or even chaos. Officials in cities as large as St. Paul, Minn., have warned that they may not be able to cope if major power outages and food and fuel shortages develop, and have called upon the churches to prepare to help house and feed people. Federal government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture and the CIA, have warned of potential difficulties. Canadian government reports have urged that country to be ready to invoke martial law -- the Emergencies Act -- if social structures collapse in early 2000.

On a smaller scale, at least one pastor -- at Our Lady of Loretto Parish in Redford, Mich. -- has issued a list of Y2K preparedness recommendations to his parishioners. Other Catholics around the country and abroad are working to alert and inform members of their parishes, although some complain that many people are still reluctant to face the potential seriousness of the problem.

Smaller churches, many of them fundamentalist, see Y2K as an evangelical moment and have taken the lead in alerting the secular community.

Individuals nationwide are stockpiling food and fuel, buying wood stoves and generators. Sales of these and other “Y2K survival” items -- including guns and ammunition -- are soaring, leading to predictable charges of commercial exploitation in what for many is a crisis atmosphere. One New Hampshire woman has ordered half a ton of dehydrated food so she will be able to help her neighbors who have not prepared for Y2K. She is one of that mushrooming number of concerned people from nearly every walk of life who have studied the problem and believe it is wiser to prepare for the worst while hoping that it never happens. Others still insist that too many people are making a mountain out of a molehill.

What went wrong?

The Y2K problem is as simple as its solution is complex. In the 1960s and 70s, computer programmers, in part to cut down on memory space, which was much more costly at the time, used two-digit dating in the big mainframe computers that would quickly change the way the world works. The year 1900 was 00; 1999 was 99. So when 00 pops up a year from now -- sooner for institutions operating on a fiscal year -- those mainframe computers, and a wide range of personal computers as well, will either reject the date or read it as 1900.

Given the interdependency of computer networks around the world, which run everything from electric power grids to airlines and railroads, from banks to the U.S. military and government departments, the result, many experts now say, will almost certainly be a major disruption and possibly a catastrophe.

There is a solution, but it involves going into those computer systems to review every code line and make changes where necessary to ensure compliance. Billions of code lines have to be checked. In this country, for example, the IRS has more than a million lines, the Defense Department up to a billion, AT&T about 500 million. Many of those codes are obscure, especially in the older machines, and repairing them takes time.

Despite early warnings going back 15 years or more, many government agencies and at least half of this country’s businesses, including banks and insurance companies, are behind in bringing their systems into Y2K compliance. Some have not even started.

A December Business Week article said the cost of bringing American business into compliance is enormous. It could reach a trillion dollars, the magazine said, up an average of about 26 percent from what major corporations were predicting only a few months ago. Rising costs are also forecast for the federal and state governments.

But even if the money is there, it may already be too late, Y2K observers say. For one thing, there are simply not enough computer technicians with the right know-how to get the job done in time. Estimates are that 350,000 or more computer programming jobs are going begging in the United States, even at six-figure salaries. The Social Security Administration, for example, has had 400 full-time programmers working on the Y2K project since 1991. It hopes to use most of 1999 to test the repaired system. But even if that goes as planned, your Social Security check may still be late if related agencies -- such as the Treasury Department -- are not in compliance. Computer networking is global, and Europe and Asia are even further behind than the United States.

With all that in mind, no doubt, many institutions are developing a “triage” approach and trying to repair first the code lines that directly affect human health and safety. That includes our health care system, which relies upon computer chips to control everything from the intensive care unit to the pacemaker in your chest. Faced with the enormity of the problem, many people have thrown up their hands, while others have gone on hoping for some high-tech “magic bullet” that will fix everything, a minor miracle most computer experts say is impossible.

Catherine Menninger is one of those indomitable individuals who refuses to be bowed by the enormity of any problem. Retired now, in her 70s, she lives alone on a few wooded acres in Franconia, an affluent town in the heart of northern New Hampshire’s ski country. She said in a recent interview that she recognized early on that Y2K was a global problem, “the kind I’ve been attuned to all my life.”

In the 1960s, for example, when she was with her husband at the renowned Menninger psychiatric clinic in Topeka, Kan., she was the Kansas representative for UNICEF, working to help children in the breakaway state of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war. More recently, she has worked to aid refugees from Zaire as rebels fought to topple the dictatorship there. But, for all her decades of experience and worldwide travels, she said Y2K is the first of her projects to merge the global and the local so concretely.

The same phenomenon that may leave the world’s financial systems in chaos and U.S. warships vulnerable may also leave you with a house without electricity and a car that won’t start because of all those embedded computer chips it depends upon. “So that’s the way it is with big problems,” Menninger said. “First one tends to be shook up, intimidated by them, but as one works them, fear -- or denial -- diminish. There is something to do! In the case of Y2K, there are many things we can do.”

Making radical changes

Concerned for her own survival, but also as an example to her neighbors and her city-dwelling children, Menninger is making some radical changes in the way she lives. Last summer, for the first time in her life, she planted a vegetable garden and has preserved much of her crop. She has installed a propane-powered generator and an old-fashioned wood-burning cookstove and already has about seven cords of firewood stacked in the yard. She is remodeling part of her house in case some of her children need a place to stay when the computer bug bites.

A lifelong Episcopalian, Menninger is now working with the Bible Baptist Church in Littleton, a largely blue-collar town not far from Franconia. The pastor there, the Rev. Timothy Cronan, organized the area’s first informational meetings on Y2K. Cronan said he does not think Y2K is the biblical Armageddon, but he does think it may be another important piece in the puzzle of world unification that he believes the Bible predicts.

Menninger is not put off by the apocalyptic tone that sometimes surfaces at the Bible Baptist Church. “We can’t let that distract us from the real issues,” she said. She agrees with Cronan that most American people have been pampered and are not prepared for a disaster on the scale they suspect Y2K may be.

Littleton resident Hal Herrick, a retired electrical engineer, went to one of Cronan’s meetings and spent a sleepless night wondering what could be done. “Most of us can’t afford $5,000 generators or a six-month supply of food or have thousands of dollars of cash on hand for an emergency,” he said.

So a few weeks ago Herrick went before the Littleton Board of Selectmen (what New Englanders call their town council) and asked that a committee be formed to study town contingency plans for Y2K. “I thought they would laugh me out of the room,” he said, but to his amazement the selectmen agreed. Their Water and Light Department superintendent told them that the problem is serious and that Littleton’s regional power supply may fail. Slowly, in part because the mainstream media are finally digging into it, the Y2K threat is sinking in.

It is sinking in not only in the hinterlands of New Hampshire but also in urban areas. In Douglasville, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, for example, a devout Catholic couple, Mary and Daniel Kochan, are quietly working to educate others in St. Theresa’s Parish about Y2K. Daniel, 31, is a Delta Airlines mechanic at the Atlanta airport. Mary, 43, home schools their two teenaged daughters and is studying English and philosophy at a nearby college.

Mary, a Catholic convert, said she “grew up in an apocalyptic cult” and had “a strong resistance” to the Y2K problem when she first heard about it last summer. Now she is keeping in touch with developments through the Internet and trying to inform the people around her. “You have to be patient and give them good, credible information,” she said. “The thing is not to panic,” Daniel said. They have moved their stocks into bonds, but Mary said the necessities, such as food and tools, are more valuable. She said some people claim Y2K will push us toward a simpler life, but it will not be simpler: “You may have to make a loaf of bread; buying one is easier.”

Mary said there is no Y2K program at St. Theresa’s. “People see it as a secular problem,” she said. “It is up to the laypeople. We have been touched through the Eucharist to be leaders in our community.” She suggests that zoning laws be suspended so city people can garden and keep animals. “We may also dig a well,” she said.

Daniel Kochan said it is “hard to set your own personal game plan,” but he is approaching Y2K preparations as a family project. “Preparing has become an interesting hobby,” he said, adding that it is “teaching the girls about economics and government structures, solar energy, dehydration and caring for animals.”

Mary Kochan echoed that assessment. “We reap what we sow,” she said. “You have to take care of your family. People can laugh at me for the rest of my life, I don’t care. It’s a lesson in the basics and it has put me in solidarity with women everywhere, especially women in the Third World.”

“You play the fool out of love for your family,” Daniel said. “And there is no waste to it. We’ve learned a lot.”

Y2K is serious, Mary Kochan said, “but it is not the end of the world.”

Armageddon or inconvenience?

Daniel and Mary Kochan’s measured approach to the computer bug problem may be one answer to Y2K dissenters such as Steve Hewitt, editor of Christian Computing Magazine. In a recent issue of his publication, Hewitt asks why “Y2K pessimists” stick to their bleak outlook in the face of increased good news about the problem.

Hewitt points out that reports from Y2K research groups and some federal agencies have been far more optimistic of late, yet the Y2K activists refuse to believe them. Why, when they were accepting gloomier assessments from those same sources a year or two ago? Hewitt mentions that for those out there hustling Y2K gloom-and-doom books and tapes -- to say nothing of “survival kits” -- good news is bad news, but he does not think that is the main reason. He believes there are at least five deeper reasons -- all of them with a Christian fundamentalist bent -- that range from Y2K as punishment for our loss of moral values, through a UN conspiracy against our democratic way of life, to Y2K as a sign that the Second Coming is upon us.

It is true that a lot of people are making money from Y2K preparedness (Business Week says it has been significant enough to generate a discernible short-term spike for the economy), and it is true that millenarianism has crept into the Y2K debate (not so different from what happened a thousand years ago, except for the technological guise). But people such as Catherine Menninger and the Kochans in Georgia are having none of that.

Nor is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has nonetheless warned in a recent publication that “all Americans are at risk ... and the nation’s food supply sector is a prime example.” The CIA, which could hardly be accused of a religious or commercial agenda, has issued at least two strong Y2K advisories to its employees in the past year, telling them how to prepare.

Philip Lamy, a Vermont sociologist who studies secular survivalism, wrote in a Y2K story in the Dec. 20 Boston Globe: “Traditionally, survivalists -- people who prepare themselves for societal disruption -- have come from religious and paramilitary groups. Now it’s going mainstream.”

Even Fr. Joseph Esper, pastor of Our Lady of Loretto Parish in Redford, Mich., who does see spiritual significance in the Y2K phenomenon, ends up giving pastors nuts-and-bolts advice on how to cope. Writing in the December issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Esper says the “church will inevitably have a role to play in this upheaval -- in both an active and a passive sense. Many people will experience the collapse of their value systems, and will, in their brokenness and despair, turn to the church for physical and spiritual assistance. We must be ready to help them.”

But Esper goes on to recommend some practical ways to prepare for Y2K. He suggests, for example that “one certain person -- the pastor or someone he designates -- should be appointed as coordinator of the parish’s Y2K preparations.” He also recommends making hard copies of all computerized parish records -- financial, personal documents, tuition receipts -- anything stored on a computer or computer disk, in case the computers fail and the records cannot be accessed. He goes on to recommend such steps as acquiring a manual typewriter, stockpiling office and sacramental supplies, purchasing a wood stove and generator and starting a food pantry if the parish doesn’t have one.

Most of those recommendations dovetail with preparations by secular groups and individuals. Esper has prepared a condensed version of his recommendations, which he is offering to anyone for the price of a self-addressed stamped envelope (Our Lady of Loretto Parish, 17116 Olympia, Redford, MI 48240). Contacted recently, Esper said he had received about 30 requests.

So, many people are still asking, is Y2K going to be something that will change our lives, or will it be little more than a pain in the neck for a day or two? From all accounts, no one really has a definitive answer to that. Maybe St. Paul, Minn., Mayor Norm Coleman said it as well as anyone last fall, when he warned that, despite the city’s best efforts, there may be major disruptions and called upon churches and synagogues to be ready to help out.

Quoted in a local newspaper, Coleman said, “On the one hand you want to be prepared for the worst, but you don’t want people to be scared of the worst. ... We are building a lifeboat I hope we never have to sail on.”

Tim McCarthy, a former writer for NCR, edits The Courier, a weekly paper published in Littleton, N.H. Portions of this report were adapted from material he prepared for The Courier.

National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999