Some experts who have been warning about a technological Armageddon caused by year 2000 computer problems now are telling Americans to chill out.
It's just not necessary to stockpile months' worth of food and water, convert bank accounts into cash, squirrel away guns and ammunition or buy generators to weather power outages.
"Our perspective right now is that the basic infrastructure of the country will hold," John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, said in an interview. "The banking system is in very good shape."
Still, experts are not suggesting that Americans forget about the year 2000 computer problem. As a precaution, they're advising people to put aside enough food, water, fuel, medical supplies and cash to last a few days. And they're suggesting they make sure the companies they work for are prepared for 2000.
But at the same time they are seeing a growing Y2K paranoia in the country, four experts are softening statements they made earlier in the year. Some had predicted that year 2000 problems would shut down banks and bring the American infrastructure tumbling down.
"I'm more positive than I was six months ago." said Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a Utah Republican who is chairman of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem.
Bennett said he still believed that there would be a "fairly major disruption that will come of this. But I'm now beginning to think the overseas problem will affect us more than I thought and that the U.S. is in better shape than I thought."
Bennett's comments were backed by Jim Cassell, author of a recent GartnerGroup research study that advises Americans not to go overboard.
Even Canadian computer programmer Peter de Jager, who is generally recognized as the first to bring the year 2000 problem into the public arena and has been an alarmist on the issue, said that now there might be too much alarm.
"The people who say buy a cabin in the woods and take your money out of the banks and the markets, they're not only silly, these are self-fulfilling prophesies," de Jager said. "If everyone takes their money out of the banks, the banks will fail."
The year 2000 problem is a programming glitch that could cause some computers and computer-controlled equipment to quit working or provide bad information at the turn of the century. The problem stems from computer systems and billions of computer chips that might read the "00" in a computer program as "1900" rather than "2000."
With just 59 weeks remaining before that date, the strongest moderating comments are coming from GartnerGroup, a Connecticut-based technology consulting firm that is considered to be the nation's leading researcher on the year 2000 computer problem.
"The year 2000 problem is analogous to a major storm," researchers at GartnerGroup said in the report. "In this case it will be, at worst, similar to a hurricane, cyclone or bad snowstorm. For individuals, the year 2000 will not be a catastrophe such as a severe earthquake, a huge asteroid crashing into the earth or a nuclear war."
Although GartnerGroup analysts are advising Americans to take some precautions - including keeping a limited amount of cash, food, water, fuel and medical supplies on hand Dec. 31, 1999 - the firm said doomsday predictions for Jan. 1, 2000, were all hype.
Any serious year 2000-related computer problems that result in power-plant shutdowns or interrupt critical services after midnight Dec. 31, 1999, should be repaired within days or even hours of the problem, said Cassell, GartnerGroup vice president and director of research.
Because New Year's Eve 1999 falls on a Friday, businesses and governments will have Saturday and Sunday to fix any problems.
GartnerGroup analysts based their projections on data gathered from 15,000 companies in 87 countries.
The GartnerGroup report is an unusual departure for the firm, which aims most of its work toward large businesses or industry groups. This report, a compilation of comments from 18 GartnerGroup analysts, is aimed at consumers.
Cassell said the myths and fallacies circulating around the year 2000 problem led to the 15-page document.
"We've been reading an awful lot of what we think are irresponsible statements that could lead people to do some unnatural acts," Cassell said. "People [suggest] that everyone take money out of banks and convert it into gold or liquidate stocks. We've heard people say, 'You'd better get a gun, because if you don't people are going to break into your house and steal your food.'
"It's not good for people to be even thinking about that kind of hype," Cassell said. "So, for the first time, we decided to write something for the general public rather than our clients."
De Jager, a year 2000 author and publisher of the Internet's most popular Web site on the issue, said fear of the unknown was driving a year 2000 paranoia.
Nonetheless, de Jager, Cassell and Bennett, the senator, said short-term spot failures of some critical services were inevitable.
GartnerGroup's year 2000 team is suggesting that families have about two weeks of salary in cash and up to five days of food, water, fuel and medical supplies on hand Dec. 31, 1999.
But GartnerGroup said the greatest risk to Americans was to be working for companies that weren't prepared for the year 2000, because companies might end up going out of business - leaving individuals unemployed.
The report also suggested that those who relied on Social Security, Veterans Affairs or other government benefits or subsidies save enough money to live on for a month, if possible. It recommended that any mail that needed to arrive early in 2000 be mailed before Jan. 1, 2000.
GartnerGroup's strongest warning involved travel.
It suggested that travel could be disrupted because of uncertainties about air-traffic control and the airlines' insurance coverage.
Koskinen took that caution further.
The president's point man on year 2000 compatibility said he was concerned about "some communities, some cities, some counties, even a couple of states that are not paying enough attention, or maybe no attention" to the year 2000 problem.
"There is a risk for people where public officials say this isn't their problem, or say it's being handled someplace," Koskinen said.
In many cases, those government agencies operate or regulate small airports, power plants and plants that treat the public's water supply, he said.
"It's the people who say you don't have to worry about it that you have to worry about," Koskinen said.
Pub Date: 11/23/98