The Day Miami Stood Still

January 1, 2000: County officials are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. What about you?

She's convinced it's bound to come, the high-tech hurricane of the Y2K computer bug, and so Melissa, a well-educated professional with two teenagers, is selling her three-bedroom Miami-Dade house, quitting her white-collar job, and fleeing the area for her mother's north Florida farm. "Oh my God," she says, half-jokingly, "I'm becoming a nut-case survivalist." (She's asked for anonymity in part because she hasn't yet told her employers.)

There's no trace of religious fanaticism in her, no history of extremism, but now she's starting to stockpile 350 pounds of rice and other supplies at the upstate farm for her family and relatives, hunkering down for what she fears could be as long as a year of economic and power disruptions.

She became convinced of the Y2K threat last year after her Internet surfing led her to disturbing reports by the U.S. Senate Committee on the Year 2000. Earlier this year the Senate committee announced that a breakdown of computer-dependent systems and equipment will be "one of the most serious and potentially devastating events this nation has ever encountered."

FPL's Sol Stamm strikes a confident pose: There will be power on January 1
Steve Satterwhite
FPL's Sol Stamm strikes a confident pose: There will be power on January 1

"They're saying it's a global crisis," Melissa notes. "How can you ignore it?"

Yet most people are ignoring it. A recent Associated Press poll showed that a majority of Americans won't make any preparations, and the upbeat tone of many recent Y2K local and national pronouncements has only reinforced apathy, creating mixed (sometimes downright schizophrenic) messages to the public. For instance, earlier this year the Miami Herald featured a story headlined, "Year 2000 computer bug won't sting U.S., experts predict." And just last month the paper offered a fundamentally reassuring account of South Florida agencies mobilizing to face "the last hurricane of 1999."

Despite such public optimism, the county government has made wide-ranging preparations for disaster and is asking the public to follow suit: Miami-Dade's Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is urging citizens to amass food, water, and supplies for two weeks. "We're planning for total problems," says OEM director Chuck Lanza, the nation's most outspoken Y2K emergency manager, "but my gut feeling is that it isn't going to approach that."

The intensive, costly preparations ($20 million for county government alone) to fight the Millennium Bug have begun to pay off, even as hundreds of people in South Florida -- both in and out of government -- continue to work to avoid Y2K disaster. Last month the state's Team Florida 2000 report on Y2K readiness gave generally high marks to governments in Miami-Dade County and local utilities, while singling out Miami Beach and a few smaller towns as lagging behind schedule. Key local services, such as Florida Power & Light, assert they completed the necessary repairs and tests by the end of June on all "mission-critical" systems, and they'll be ready. In fact the company's Fort Lauderdale power plant has already had clocks and timers in computer-based equipment permanently moved ahead to the year 2000. Virtually all the company's plants will follow suit well before January. (FPL's three other plants in Miami-Dade and Broward temporarily rolled their systems forward as part of their successful testing.) "When you flip on a switch in January," says Sol Stamm, FPL's Y2K project manager, "the power's going to be there."

But worried Y2K activists, and even some county officials, aren't as confident. They're making extensive contingency plans to respond to possible disruptions in providing essential goods and services. At the heart of their fear is a glitch caused by computer programmers who used only the last two digits to refer to the year, a shortcut that could lead millions of computers and embedded chips in electronic equipment to shut down or provide faulty data when they read the "00" in 2000 as 1900.

That possibility has led Renee Greene, a Fort Lauderdale programmer who publishes the Y2K Newsletter for Non-Computer Users, to organize more than 200 neighbors to start food, water, and other Y2K-readiness preparations. One major survivalist concern: home invasions by hungry marauders. "Security is a prepared neighbor," Greene says, adding, "There's a resounding underground movement, and it's intentionally quiet."

Miami-Dade County officials have, in effect, formed their own Y2K underground. They've been quietly obsessed with the issue for two and a half years (preliminary work began four years ago), making elaborate repairs and preparations, from extra fuel and emergency shelters to special police training exercises. Their guiding principle has been "Hope for the best and prepare for the worst," according to Jenny Deblois, the county's Y2K project manager. But with most people in Miami-Dade apparently ignoring the issue, the challenge of alerting the public has become especially daunting for people like Chuck Lanza, the county's leading Y2K crusader. One sign of his zeal: He augments his official preparation work with warnings and advice on his personal Website, through sales of a video he produced, and in an Internet column he writes for, yes, y2ktimebomb.com .

The worst-case Y2K scenario Lanza and others have been preparing for sometimes seems like a B-movie sci-fi nightmare. Here's how Y2K might hit us if the readiness efforts collapse:

Just after midnight, as tens of thousands of celebrants are crowding nightclubs in Miami Beach and hotel ballrooms and Bayfront Park in downtown Miami, darkness descends. Digital sound equipment playing Prince's refrain, "Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1999" suddenly goes dead, and the stunned dancers freeze in the silence. Outside, in some neighborhoods, the sound of broken glass can be heard as looting begins. But when people call 911 for help, the phones are dead. The street lights and traffic signals along Biscayne Boulevard have gone out; some cars, especially luxury models, have stalled along the roadway because their high-tech engines have failed. In Miami Beach high-rises, many elderly find themselves stranded, alone, and in the dark. Some keel over dead as their life-sustaining equipment shuts down. By the next day hundreds of thousands of residents are desperate and afraid, and they're mortified to discover that their toilets are backing up, too. They rush to Publix and Walgreens to buy emergency essentials but the water and batteries, the flashlights and candles, the tuna and peanut butter are long gone.

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