Preparing for the Millennium

Go to the Austin Hill Country and meet some folks who are taking Y2K very seriously

The answer depends on who's speaking, and there is no shortage of voices offering a plethora of scenarios.

The Gartner Group, considered the country's top Y2K consultant, predicts that, even in those countries that are busily preparing for trouble, 15 percent of the infrastructure "grid" --transportation, communication systems and utilities -- will fail. Less-prepared countries can expect a 66 percent failure, the consultants say.

The Brookings Institute, a conservative think tank, warns that Russia's nuclear early-warning system, as well as its fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, is vulnerable to a Y2K computer glitch. That creates "the possibility of multiple Chernobyls," says Brookings analyst Bruce Blair.

Most Y2K experts predict that Americans will turn to their local governments if things go haywire. That would be a mistake, at least according to the government. Both the United States General Accounting Office and the Federal Emergency Management Agency say that state, county and city agencies will be least prepared when 2000 arrives. The GAO says 25 percent of local governments will not be ready in time.

"There's still a great deal of work that needs to be done," FEMA officials conclude.

Then again, that's the unofficial motto of the Hill Country pioneers. Burdened by the demands of his apartment-renovation business in Houston, Peter has yet to prepare his garden and is in danger of missing the spring planting season. He plans to start stockpiling food and other necessities as early as this summer. Lynn and Charles are worried about whether their rainwater catchment systems have enough capacity to see them through, should something happen on January 1, 2000.

"I should have twice as much as I do now," says Lynn, who blames last summer's drought conditions, as well the recent dry spell, for her dilemma.

But prepared or not, they're all staying close to home as the millennium approaches. Peter plans to build a huge bonfire on New Year's Eve. Anyone's welcome to join him, he says, as long as he can carry his own load.

"They're going to have to bring food, water and Krugerrands," he says. "And they better be prepared to work."

All others might want to approach with caution. The big issue being discussed among this small group of friends and ecocompatriots is whether or not they should arm themselves. Peter, who expects many people to be desperate for food and water, is all for it. Charles is flat-out opposed to the idea, figuring anybody that desperate will himself be armed and dangerous. He also expects the federal government will call out the National Guard to restore order if things get out of hand.

Lynn isn't so sure she wants a gun, although she is concerned that thousands of hungry people will be "mushrooming from the city" in a panic.

"What's going to happen if all the supermarkets close because there's no food?" she says. "It could be months before anyone wanders this far out, but I think there are going to be be some pretty desperate people, stealing any car they can find with gas in it to look for something to eat."

Of course, how dangerous a place the world becomes in the early days and weeks of 2000 depends on how big a problem Y2K turns out to be. Beyond that, the only question left to answer is: What's next?

In a few small, self-contained homesteads in the Hill Country, life will probably go on much as it has for the past several years. More than likely, the migration of environmental activists, as well as those tired of the grind of modern life, will continue.

Should enough people develop this "new consciousness," this urge to disconnect from the mainstream and simplify, Charles and Laurel, Peter and Lynn could actually become the mainstream.

But don't bet on it, says Charles.
"Unless we have drastic changes, global, continental shifts in thinking, Y2K is going to be just a temporary setback," he says. "In our very typical mode we'll be looking for what's the easiest way, and eventually we'll just fall right back into the same routine thing, just like always. And we'll probably build it up bigger than ever."

E-mail Brian Wallstin at brian_wallstin@houstonpress.com.

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