Bugged By the Millennium

A computer glitch has some Dallasites predicting an apocalyptic meltdown. They may not be that crazy.

Surely, the 22 people gathered in the back of the Denny's restaurant at LBJ Freeway and Midway Road on this Friday afternoon are kooks. They are there for the weekly lunch meeting of the Dallas Area Y2K Community Preparedness Group to discuss what to do when the world as we know it ends in 16 months. Today's topic is the advantages and disadvantages of various alternatives to electricity.

The group's organizers, four Dallas-area Christians, created the meetings to raise public awareness about the problems they believe will arise at midnight on New Year's Eve 1999, when computer-controlled devices around the globe are expected to begin failing because they aren't programmed to read dates in the new century properly. The problem is known as the Millennium Bug or Y2K, and it has some people scared out of their wits, anticipating global economic collapse after the computers that control everything from the nation's power grid to the world financial system fail.

Hence, the meetings at Denny's.
Ironically, word of the meeting, along with much of the information about the Millennium Bug, is spread over the Internet, where people like the Weatherman, who helps organize the Denny's gatherings, use computers to put out the word of society's pending computerized doom.

The Weatherman asked that the Dallas Observer not publish his real name, because he's been the subject of articles in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Chicago Tribune, and his co-workers are gossiping. They think the Weatherman and his lunch dates are a bunch of "end-time" doomsayers--guns-and-ammo types who are running for the hills because a simple computer problem has convinced them that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are galloping toward them at 400 megahertz.

Listening to the discussion at Denny's, it's no wonder the Weatherman's co-workers are talking.

"The other problem with propane," says the group's guest speaker, "is you get a leak anywhere and, poof, it's gone."

Like most people at the meeting, the man won't say what his name is or where he lives, other than it's in a straw house two hours away in an area where there are few people. He has volunteered to speak here because he knows a lot about alternative fuels and the machines that burn them.

Propane is explosive, and so is gasoline, which is why he has converted to diesel. It's cheap, safer to store, and lasts longer. But no matter what fuel they go with, he warns, they need to plan appropriately.

"Depending on your view of the situation, the fuel you have at the time of the collapse might be all you have for five years," he says, adding that whatever you do, you shouldn't buy a propane tank. "Rent it," he says. "Pay a $250, two-year down payment, and in two years they're bankrupt. And give 'em your Visa number."

A giggle ripples through the crowd. Visa, they're certain, is one of the many companies that will greet the new millennium belly-up, felled by the Y2K bug.

Kelly, a real estate appraiser, shakes his head as he listens.
"They're concentrating too much on electricity. What? You turn the lights on so you can watch each other starve," he says, dabbing a spot of ketchup from the corner of his mouth. Food and water are what this group should be talking about, he says. And security.

Recently he and his wife, a retired teacher, bought land in the Kiamichi Mountains in Oklahoma, and they're planning to relocate there before the collapse. The couple is attracted to the remote location because its isolation provides security from other people, who they think will riot, loot, and shoot once the computer problem becomes a reality.

"You'll never find me," Kelly says. "We are going to build this entire house, and only one person will know, and that's the water-well person. If you're gonna try to get away from people, you need to keep it quiet."

Kelly doesn't think his relocation, which includes plans to stock up on extra food, water, and other supplies, is excessive: When you see a storm coming, he says, it only makes sense to seek shelter. Besides, he and his wife were hoping to live in a more remote area one day, and after they educated themselves about the Y2K problem, they decided to move sooner rather than later.

Kelly didn't make his decision based on some wild information he got from a group of remote survivalists, some of whom are seated in this room. He says he realized how big a problem Y2K is after he read an article by Edward Yardeni, the chief economist of Deutsche Bank Securities, who predicts a 70 percent chance of global recession because of Y2K.

"Our whole society is computer-oriented, but people just take it for granted," Kelly says. "I got this idea that I'm being selfish [by running], but I don't want to be in the middle of chaos. What could you do in the middle of the L.A. riots? And there will be riots.

"I would equate America and our economy with the way people viewed the Titanic. People say, 'How could the economy go down?'" The question is a rhetorical platform from which Kelly and the other people in this room have already leapt.

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