The Day Miami Stood Still

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

Lanza, like a true Y2K convert, hasn't been content to help just Miami-Dade prepare for the possibility of computer disaster; he's been seeking to awaken the entire nation. He might be called a semialarmist, whose views fall somewhere between the doomsayers and the more sanguine federal experts. Through his own Website (, he's offering advice to individuals and towns. He runs an off-hours consulting service for other counties and hawks a $20 video, Global Problems with Local Solutions. (Lanza says the tape is available for free to county residents and he's applied for a grant to fund free national distribution. He also insists there's no conflict of interest posed by his for-profit Y2K business because it's done on his own time.)

The preparation video offers general common-sense pointers such as filling prescriptions in advance and stocking battery-powered radios. A relatively slick production, the video features a worried-sounding female narrator and guest experts (Lanza and a few other emergency-management employees) sharing tips on how to deal with possible shortages in electricity, power, water, and so on. It sets an ominous tone from the very beginning, with old documentary footage of noble GIs gazing upward as the voiceover intones, "Not since World War II has there been a threat that looms so large to affect the entire world!"

Then Lanza comes on to warn us: "If we are uninformed or ill prepared to deal with a loss of services, panic could ensue that could far and away exceed the impact of actual disruptions." On the other hand, he points out, if individuals and communities are prepared, they'll be ready to work together to "maintain order and foster a rapid recovery," all of which implies there will be some urban turmoil and shortages.

Survival tip 3: Don't even think about flying
Survival tip 3: Don't even think about flying
Survival tip 4: Stockpile enough food and other essentials for fourteen days
Survival tip 4: Stockpile enough food and other essentials for fourteen days

The looming disaster is highlighted in the video by eerie camerawork and dire pronouncements. For example, Lt. Les Forster, OEM's emergency coordinator, warns as the camera moves creepily down a supermarket aisle: "If, for instance, grocery stores are unable to receive food due to transportation problems, food supplies could become dangerously low, and you may not have access to food and water." He adds, "You need to assume public water systems will not be available," even as the county's own water and sewer department prides itself on its Y2K readiness and back-up generators.

Such official concern about the Millennium Bug was underscored in an extensive series of briefings this past May by top officials of nearly 50 county departments and offices. It is still the most comprehensive review of the county's Y2K status to date. The departments were divided into broad "contingency planning groups" to tackle Y2K's impact on the public, including transportation, safety, and human services. Those meetings, in turn, were followed a week later with a high-level review -- mostly upbeat -- by a "Y2K core advisory group" that included Lanza's office, the budget department, and other key operations.

For the most part, even when the administrators talked about averting jail breaks or radio failures, they spoke in the polite, neutral tones of professional bureaucrats who were in control of the situation. These officials, at least, bore no resemblance to the crooked or incompetent blowhards who've drawn most of the media coverage of local government in recent years. The nightmare scenario the Y2K planners had been working intensely to avoid may have undergirded their detailed preparations, but there was no panic in this conference room. At the end of it all, after dropping by to get a brief update, County Manager Merrett Stierheim boasted, "I think as an organization we're in as good or better shape than any large jurisdiction in the country."

Even if that's not the case (many experts point to the comprehensive planning of Montgomery County, Maryland, as the nation's best ), Miami-Dade is well ahead of most other local governments. The county's readiness claims, though, have one big hole in them: They haven't, for most departments, been verified by an independent auditing firm. Still, 86 percent of the county's "mission-critical" systems are reportedly Y2K compliant now, including those most crucial to public safety, such as the 911 system, the water and sewer plants, and traffic-signal controls. Almost all the rest are scheduled to be finished by the end of October. Unfortunately parts of the transit system aren't yet compliant, but officials have plans for manual backups. For instance, if there's a collapse of Metrorail's central control system, which remotely monitors and controls rail-line power and security at each station, the circuit breakers at every station can be manipulated by hand so service can continue and accidents can be prevented.

What really sets the county apart from most other communities in the nation are its extensive contingency and emergency plans. A nationwide survey by the National Association of Counties, for example, found that about 60 percent of counties didn't have any such plans at all. In contrast each of Miami-Dade County's departments submitted plans by the end of June and they're now being reviewed by Lanza and other officials, slated to be sent back to the departments for additional tinkering at the end of this month.

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