The Day Miami Stood Still
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."
"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.
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."
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.
He urges the same sure-but-steady approach to building cash reserves; otherwise, he contends, we'll face the danger of not being able to get enough cash when we need it most. Lanza's worst-case vision of a Y2K banking crisis is bleaker than that of almost any public official in the nation. He sees the need for as much as a month's worth of cash to pay for all bills and purchases, including those now paid for by check and credit cards. "The [local] banks aren't as confident as they are at the federal level," he points out at the seminar. "If you went to take out $10,000 from your account right now, you could probably get it. But come December, if a large number of people want to get $10,000, they're pretty sure they will not have that kind of cash to give out to everybody."
Dismissive of federal claims that there will be enough ready cash at year's end, he offers helpful advice that hardly masks his dour Y2K concerns. "What [the local banks] are asking people to do is keep your money in the bank -- the money is safe -- but if you are going to take money out, take smaller sums out in increments." He recommends traveler's checks, apparently to foil thieves hunting for Y2K stashes. A spokesman for the largest local bank chain, NationsBank, says their ATMs are ready to meet customers' cash needs, while noting that large amounts of money are far safer staying in the bank. The Red Cross suggests people take out only a small amount of cash to get through the weekend if ATMs quit working.
Besides warning people to have thousands in extra funds at hand, Lanza urges a more widely accepted measure. "Just like we do in hurricane season," he advises, "back up with hard copies of all your important records: birth certificates, bank records, IRS records, things where people owe you money, your stocks and bonds."
Lanza does his best to end on what for him is an optimistic note. "If we have few disruptions and we have high public confidence," he says, "we'll have a planned response and nothing of significance will happen in our community."
But if their questions offer any clue, the audience doesn't seem to have much faith after this downbeat sermon. There are, of course, queries about the safety of airplanes. Despite the Federal Aviation Administration's optimistic declarations that the nation's air-traffic-control system is ready for Y2K, Lanza warns, "I know for sure I'm not going to be flying. Why be at 30,000 feet if something happens when you can be 2 feet above the ground and just step out of your car?" His wariness also seems to be at odds with reports by the county's aviation department that 96 percent of MIA's safety and security systems are now Y2K compliant, with the rest to be completed next month. Bruce Drum, an assistant aviation director, says, "The airport will be operational, and I have no hesitation about flying in the United States." He does, however, have concerns about the level of Y2K readiness among Latin American airlines and airports.
Then the other Y2K bogeyman -- marauding hordes or wily terrorists -- rears its ugly head. "Has there been any discussion about people using Y2K as an opportunity to cause problems?" one worried listener asks Lanza.
The emergency chief calmly refers to the county's planned response, though it doesn't necessarily dispel unease about Y2K threats. "You're talking about people taking Y2K as an opportunity to do bad things," he says. "For Super Bowl, for any large event, we've always had what we call our terrorist component. With the FBI and local police intelligence we look at potential groups or problem areas or crippled infrastructure that could be at risk, and we're doing that for Y2K."
Chuck Lanza's Y2K vigilance is shaped by his years of emergency-response work, and inside his small office in the bunkerlike, reinforced-concrete emergency headquarters at Galloway Road and Miller Drive in west Miami-Dade, he's surrounded by portents of doom. On his desk, always handy for easy reference, are cheery works such as Time Bomb 2000 (written by a computer expert who fled his city home and is stockpiling a year's worth of food) and Y2K Risk Management; behind him on the wall is a satellite photo of the path of Hurricane Andrew, another reminder of disaster. He began researching the Y2K topic two years ago, and was particularly influenced by Time Bomb 2000. "It was pretty obvious that there could be food disruptions and power disruptions," he notes. About that same time the county initiated its intensive Y2K planning and repairs; Lanza has played a major role in drafting Miami-Dade's "response and recovery" plan.
He's made a wide range of preparations, all colored by his pessimistic approach to emergency planning. For example, he takes out a map with symbols indicating the location of the 300 or so electrically dependent residents who've registered with his office and will be brought to medical facilities.
"If the power goes down in Y2K, there's the potential that everything could go wrong," he says. He's got a backup for the backups if the 911 system somehow breaks down, even with its generators for the computer-based telephone switching system, even with the bank of extra phones set up for operators at his emergency command center, and even with the index cards to write down by hand distress calls. "If people couldn't call 911 and we couldn't dispatch units," he says, "we're going to use the high schools as casualty collection points."
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 ( chucklanza.com), 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.
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.
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.)
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."
The business community has been equally apathetic. At the end of June, for example, the state's Team Florida 2000 (www.tf2k.org) and the White House's Y2K office combined forces to present a symposium on Y2K that featured key businesses, utilities, and a presentation by President Clinton's Y2K czar, John Koskinen. Fewer than 80 people bothered to attend.
And when Miami's Latin chamber of commerce held a briefing for small businesses a few months ago, not a single person showed up, according to county Y2K project manager Jenny Deblois. At a briefing held September 9 the turnout was less than 30, despite ads on Univision promoting the event. The chamber will offer free Y2K advice to businesses starting next month. Deblois notes, "Our main concern is talking to private companies. They still feel it's an information problem you can leave to the techies. They have to be concerned how it can impact them personally."
Businesses in Miami-Dade, in fact, may be facing foreign-trade economic turmoil that no branch of government can prevent. "Businesses that deal with the Caribbean and Latin America have to fortress themselves," warns Scott McPherson, the statewide Y2K coordinator for Team Florida 2000. "They have to look for weak links in the chain [of trade]. We're not optimistic at all about Latin America." Hamstrung by Y2K, struggling overseas banks and businesses could create a domino effect in Miami-Dade County, McPherson cautions. "Some of these businesses could go out of business." And the state will soon begin preaching that message here.
All the warnings about Y2K haven't been completely ignored. At Jet's Florida Outdoors camping store in west Miami-Dade, about five people per week, the last of the true believers, come into the well-stocked shop to browse among the water filters, freeze-dried foods, and kerosene lanterns, and are willing to admit they're preparing for Y2K. "The whole furor has really died down," says store manager Kevin Crown, noting that a few months ago 40 to 50 people per week were shopping for supplies. Crown adds that there are still those who seek out another popular millennium item: "Ammo -- 9mm."
Most Y2K shoppers probably aren't planning to shoot invaders, but they still voice strong concerns. Maria Orrett, an outgoing middle-age woman who, on a recent Saturday, was looking for a water filter, says, "Living in South Florida, you've got to be really stupid not to prepare." She was strongly influenced by her pastor at the Jesus Fellowship Church in South Miami-Dade, who has been warning his flock about the crisis for nearly two years. "I don't believe it's going to be the end of the world," she remarks, but still she and her family are preparing for three months of shortages, in part because of the postmillennium economic disorder she's expecting.
Orrett found her thinking shaped by yet another Y2K evangelist: Chuck Lanza. "I went to a meeting at my church where he spoke," she recalls, "and he told us the county should prepare for fourteen days. He was taking it very seriously. If he's that concerned, how can we not be?"
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.