The Day Miami Stood Still

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

Of course it probably won't happen that way, but county officials aren't taking any chances, even if most people are paying little attention to their exhortations to prepare. Lanza, for instance, has been sharing his grim perspective for months with anyone who cares to listen. On a Friday morning earlier this year Lanza, a wiry 21-year veteran of the Miami-Dade Fire Department, could be found making yet another Y2K presentation to a tiny audience, at a Y2K seminar hosted by the Miami-Dade Community College Entrepreneurial and Education Center, located in Liberty City. The aim is to educate nearby businesses about what they could do to prepare for the dreaded Millennium Bug, but only a handful of residents have attended; most of the twenty people in the room either work for the college or are making presentations themselves. There is an unreal quality about the event, as if the speakers are play-acting at raising public awareness.

Hovering over Lanza's approach to Y2K is the dark memory of Hurricane Andrew and the county's stumbling response to that 1992 disaster. "Some other localities are taking Y2K much less seriously than we are," he says, "but what I'm doing comes out of my experience with Hurricane Andrew."

When the devastating hurricane was approaching, Lanza recalls, as the head of communications and emergency medical services he blithely told his fire chief: "I'm confident we can provide our services on August 24 no matter what happens." Now, in front of this small audience, he admits, "I was wrong. We didn't have the ability to envision how bad it could be." He didn't foresee the havoc wreaked by shattered glass on roadways causing 300 flat tires on police and rescue vehicles, or the wind-toppled transmitters that disrupted vital radio communications. "I'm not going to let that happen again," he vows. "For Y2K I'm assuming the worst-case scenario. At heart I'm an optimist, but I'm paid to be the county's pessimist."

George Burgess, aide to the county manager, assures that government workers will be paid
Steve Satterwhite
George Burgess, aide to the county manager, assures that government workers will be paid
Semialarmist emergency operations chief and Y2K entrepreneur Chuck Lanza
Steve Satterwhite
Semialarmist emergency operations chief and Y2K entrepreneur Chuck Lanza

Just how much of a pessimist becomes clearer as he flashes on a screen behind him a chart labeled "Threat Matrix" that outlines the different possible dangers. In one quadrant of the screen is the stark word Armageddon. In the best-case scenario, he notes, there'd be only a few disruptions and a well-planned response from the public. Then he points to the ominous A-word and says, "Armageddon is when real bad things happen and people panic. It's a situation we can't allow to happen. If people aren't confident their government is ready, there could be panic, and we're doing everything we can to minimize that."

He not only reassures them about the progress the county has made, but sketches a few of the extraordinary back-up measures being planned. "The [criminal] court system said if they don't have power, they're not going to close down, even if they have to set up tents," he reports. "They've already identified vendors for tents." Most important, the Miami-Dade emergency operations center in Southwest Miami-Dade will be ready to mobilize county personnel in the weeks before and after the millennium change. All extended leaves for OEM staffers will be canceled between mid-December and mid-January. On New Year's Eve, staffers from major county agencies will be joined by representatives from key utilities and the Red Cross.

He is also lining up generator-powered facilities -- as he does during hurricane threats -- to take in the frail elderly, other impaired residents, and those "electrically dependent" people who rely on ventilators and other equipment to survive. "Our biggest concerns are health and medical," he says, laying the groundwork for perhaps his most controversial recommendation: "We're asking the public to be self-sufficient for fourteen days, and we're serious about this."

Lanza is well aware that his self-reliance guidelines are far more extreme than either the Red Cross, which recommends three days' worth of supplies, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has compared Y2K to a potential ice storm. Lanza has been quietly outraged at that metaphor, attacking it in his Internet column and again here at the Liberty City meeting. "The need for fourteen days is not based on the length of the storm, but based on recovery. In the storm [in the Northeast] this winter, some people were not able to get food, power, and water for two to three weeks."

The lesson for Miami-Dade is clear. "How long will it take county services to be up and running?" he asks. "If there's significant damage to the infrastructure, it could be at least fourteen days." (In a later interview, he elaborated: "In all honesty you can't really count on a lot of other people to take care of you in a disaster." )

Lanza would like the public to gradually add to its store of supplies, building up two weeks' worth of hurricane reserves, and then making sure that even after hurricane season passes, they maintain that two-week level into January. But Lanza, with his extensive hurricane experience, knows that too many people won't prepare ahead. "Two days before a hurricane everyone rushes out to stores and wipes out the shelves. But we can't let that happen during Y2K because it's not just our county that's going to be short of food. If the stores are wiped out, people who did not have food would be out of luck," he warns the audience. To help overcome such shortages, he has met with representatives of the major grocery chains to ensure that their warehouses have built up enough supplies to handle possible outbreaks of hoarding as the millennium nears.

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