Features

'Feeling a little let down'

National | Y2K doomsayers disappointed as the new century arrives without a serious glitch

Issue: "The Morning After," Jan. 15, 2000

Nothing happened. The whole Y2K scenario was a big bust. The melodramatic apocalypse predicted, feared, and fantasized about by thousands, including a disproportionate number of Christians, didn't materialize. Ironically, the biggest shutdown of Millennium Eve in Seattle was a huge private fireworks display held by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates that reduced freeway traffic to a standstill.

Not that Y2K didn't pose a problem. The Y2K computer bug threatened computers programmed with two-digit dates that would misread dates after 1999. Since no one knew the effects of this problem within millions of computers, a frenzy of speculation broke out. An estimated $100 billion was spent getting everything from desktop PCs to nuclear reactors free of the bug. As it turned out, any dangerous problems were averted and what remained were minor mistakes.

"We can safely say that what is referred to as the Y2K bug has been squashed with regard to the key infrastructure systems in the United States," White House Y2K Czar John Koskinen said at a press conference.

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He said no major problems were found in the so-called Y2K "Iron Triangle" of transportation, power, and telecommunications. Extreme Y2K watchers claimed that if one of these three industries collapsed, so, too, would civilization.

One of those hit by the Y2K bug was Al Gore's campaign website, which received some email dated Jan. 3, 19100 (99+1=100). In Albany, N.Y., a video store billed a customer $91,250 after computers showed his late tape was 100 years overdue. And some computer screens flashed "1900" at four small airports around Chicago.

The closest thing to a real crisis popped up at the Oak Ridge nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee. A computer that tracks nuclear material malfunctioned, according to officials, but actual accounting of material was not affected.

Meanwhile, Y2K doomsayers were forced to backpedal. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the Left Behind series, had claimed online that the bug would wreak havoc, "making it possible for the Antichrist or his emissaries ... to dominate the world commercially until it is destroyed." By the end of the year, the quote came back to haunt them. "We regret having talked about it," Mr. Jenkins blushed to The Washington Post.

Christian publishing executive Michael Hyatt made a second career out of Y2K, churning out three books (one co-written by former WORLD contributor George Grant) proclaiming a coming chaos. "When the clock strikes midnight on December 31, 1999, will you be ready?" he asked in his heyday. Yet when he discovered the Y2K time bomb wouldn't go off, he seemed downright disappointed.

"[Y]ou are probably feeling a little let down today," the former partner in Wolgemuth and Hyatt Publishers told his online audience. "I can certainly understand your disappointment or perhaps your frustration. However, I want to emphasize that things are far from over."

The loudest voice of all, Gary North, was not ready to concede defeat as of January 3. "Supply chains remain an issue," he said on his website. "So does the spread of noncompliant data."

Y2K hysteria had real-life victims. A Kansas City couple pulled all their money out of the bank and stashed it all in a safe. That left them vulnerable to four robbers who took a four-wheeled dolly into their home and carried off the loot. Good thing for the unnamed couple the thieves couldn't pick the lock and abandoned the safe in a field.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin electrical engineer Dennis Olson and his family are stuck with a $20,000 stash of food, drinking water, and medical supplies-including 400 boxes of Hamburger Helper, 175 pounds of pasta, and a generator.

Mr. Olson said he spent a thousand hours online studying everything from the power grid to martial law-and all for naught. "It's a little bittersweet to see it end this way," he said.

Meanwhile, some of the 22 families who stole away on the Rivendell Y2K hideout in Floyd County, Va., still worry about the so-called "domino effect," in which a little problem causes an endless chain of disasters. "I'll wait three months before I think the coast is clear," said founder Ken Griffith, a 28-year-old Virginia Tech graduate and former computer programmer.

Hardcores who bought goods from one survivalist shop may be stuck with their stash. Fred Morris, manager at Major Surplus & Survival in southern California, said he won't accept returns on Y2K merchandise. "If we had people bringing all the stuff back, stores could go out of business," he said. "We discussed this with our customers before their purchase."

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