The Day Miami Stood Still

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

Previews of those plans were unveiled at the May meetings, and they weren't pretty. Amid the low-key presentations, dark humor and finger-pointing occasionally flared up, all of it played against the calamity bureaucrats seek to prevent. The water and sewer department's Y2K project chief, Jorge Rodriguez, expressed an especially harsh opinion of FPL. As the single biggest consumer of power in the county, the department was worried about the utility's reliability. "The service of FPL is pretty bad," the tough-talking Rodriguez said after one meeting. "Why do you think we've poured millions into power generators at our sewage and water facilities?" (Back-up generators aren't a Y2K addition; they've been in place for about twenty years.) He credited FPL with making Y2K progress, but to emphasize his wariness about outages, he exclaimed, "I'm dealing with it at least three days a week in my home in Kendall: The VCR clock is blinking because the power went off!"

The biggest problem posed by any major power outage, Rodriguez believed, would be the failure of many of the 966 pump stations that route sewage from homes to the county's three treatment plants. Extended outages would mean that sewage could back up into homes or overflow the power-deprived pump stations. Only about one-third of those stations would be able to get backup generators to power them in an emergency. "The vast number of pump stations is the Achilles' heel of our Y2K plan," he conceded. "If there are blackouts in Miami-Dade, there'll be sewage in the streets." In case of failures, some of the sewage overflow could be handled by portable pumps or tank trunks, but at least half the county's pump stations could have raw human waste flowing unimpeded into streets and storm sewers.

The waste-disposal issue worried Benjamin Lee, the mordant Y2K project director for the county's public hospital, who warned members of the human-services contingency group: "There could be potential problems with the sewers," by which he meant a threat to the well-being of patients at Jackson Memorial. He then turned to Lanza and joked, "Hopefully we'll get some burlap bags for lifting [the raw sewage], right?" Lanza responded in kind, "That's heavy lifting." (Since then generators have been moved to pumping stations near Jackson Memorial Hospital.)

The Internet is swollen with Y2K sites like Lanza's
The Internet is swollen with Y2K sites like Lanza's
Miami-Dade County's Y2K site
Miami-Dade County's Y2K site

Lee's agency, the Public Health Trust, like a few key county departments, has also taken the extra security measure of canceling all leave for hospital staff between December 28 and January 15. Lee believed, as he told Lanza during lunch, "Murphy's Law is going to get you." (For the uninitiated, the law states: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.)

The threat of Murphy's Law seems to have driven the cautionary approach of the county police department, which also has canceled leave for all sworn personnel and essential civilian staff between December 20 and January 16. Chief Robert Holden, the police Y2K coordinator, also reassured his colleagues that, even if power outages occur, there wouldn't be any escapes from the county's jails. "All perimeter doors will remain shut," he said, noting that they do so automatically in the event of blackouts.

The Miami-Dade Police Department has done even more to guarantee that no prisoners will roam free. In this year's "field force" training to drill for their response to a disturbance, officers were told to practice setting up a perimeter outside a correctional facility -- in this case using warehouses in Northwest Miami-Dade. Unlike previous years, all officers, including desk-bound administrative personnel, were assigned to the training. "We were told to surround the facility to secure it from escape," recalls Lt. Donald Rifkin, the information management section supervisor, "and practice without using radios." They used hand signals and portable bullhorns to communicate. In fact the threat of radio failure, which hampered the Hurricane Andrew recovery, has prompted several back-up steps, including using portable air conditioners to keep transmitter equipment cool.

Government workers will be kept cool in another way: No matter how bad things get, county employees will be paid, even if banking is disrupted. The county is planning to set aside three pay periods' worth of checks in January and early February. "They're going to be locked away safely," George Burgess, executive assistant to the county manager, told the high-level review group, adding with a smile, "and they're not going to have signatures on them until after January 4, 2000." It had all the makings of a caper movie they'd like to avoid: A squad of county employees crack a safe, forge checks, and divvy up the loot. As Burgess pointed out, the county faced the challenge of safely printing and storing about 90,000 paychecks.

By now, less than 120 days from the millennium, it's clear the main problem in Miami-Dade isn't the citizens' panic that once worried officials but rather the indifference of most citizens and small businesses to the Y2K threat. As Chuck Lanza wrote in a recent installment of his Internet column: "We expect to see a run on fuel, food, water, and cash as we approach the end of 1999. We liken this to the rush we see when a hurricane is within three to four days of Miami-Dade County. In spite of numerous Y2K preparedness messages, I expect the public for the most part to wait until mid-December to prepare."

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