WASHINGTON -- As the Year 2000 computer deadline nears, U.S. embassies are hoping for the best but planning for the worst, especially in developing nations that have been slow to ensure that their telephone, electricity and transport systems will work properly after New Year's Eve.
In a prelude to warnings the State Department will issue for all Americans traveling abroad over New Year's, many embassies are encouraging vacations for their nonessential workers, preparing to operate with skeleton staffs and stocking food, fuel and short-wave radios.
In Brasilia, Brazil, for example, "they're encouraging people that don't need to be around not to be flying back and forth" around Jan. 1, when millennium-related computer problems are expected to kick in, said Terry Davidson, an embassy spokesman. "Other people, like myself, they're telling I'd better be here."
In Abidjan, Ivory Coast, embassy workers plan to keep fresh water and batteries on hand in case utility services are disrupted.
In Kiev, Ukraine, U.S. Ambassador Steven Pifer has ordered 31 key employees not to leave town between Dec. 27 and Jan. 15.
The precautions come four months before the start of a new century is expected to trip up many computers and cause glitches with power generators, phone systems, hospital hardware and other devices. Though deemed a potentially serious problem in the United States, the "Y2K" bug is predicted to be much worse overseas, where many countries started later and devoted fewer resources to fixing Y2K defects.
For months, U.S. officials have worked quietly with foreign governments on some of the worst potential problems. For example, Energy Department engineers have visited nuclear reactors in Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union to try to prevent an unlikely -- but potentially catastrophic -- meltdown caused by Y2K computer malfunctions.
So far, the State Department's advice for ordinary Americans who plan to travel in December and January has been limited to fairly general warnings. U.S. citizens "should be aware of the potential for problems and stay informed about Y2K preparedness in the locations where they will be traveling," the department's inspector general, Jacquelyn L. Williams-Bridgers, said in July.
But this month, the department will issue country-by-country reports on possible Y2K threats endangering Americans abroad. The precautions being taken by the embassies, which have been assessing local Y2K issues for at least a year, suggest that the reports will identify substantial risks for Americans living or traveling in many of the countries.
The State Department has instructed all embassies to evacuate any employees dependent on computerized medical devices, such as kidney dialysis machines. Many embassies are operating on "liberal leave" policies, under which nonessential employees are urged to take vacations.
Though all U.S. foreign missions have backup electricity generators, some are stocking extra generator fuel to make sure they can endure a shutdown of two weeks or more. They are also acquiring satellite phones to ensure that diplomatic communications can continue, and, "if everything goes out, there's always high-frequency radios," said a top official in the State Department's Y2K planning office.
Ambassadors are drawing up plans to evacuate dependents and larger portions of their staffs in case of local unrest or widespread breakdowns of basic services.
"Energy seems to be the one area that is perhaps most vulnerable" in many countries, the official said. "And then, of course, if you don't have power, a lot of other things won't work."
The State Department says it will fine-tune its embassy preparations and tourist advice as 2000 draws closer, sounding alarms as the situation warrants.
"There's been no decision taken right now" on any mandatory evacuations in any country, said a department official. "If we decided, in fact, that Post X is going to have an authorized departure, we have to inform the public as soon as we make that kind of decision."
In any event, he added, no embassies will close.
The official denied reports that all embassies have been ordered to stock 30 days' worth of groceries. For the State Department, the Y2K precautions are a highly delicate task. It wants to minimize risks for its embassy employees -- possibly by bringing some of them home. Yet it doesn't want to shrink its staffs so drastically that the embassies are left ill-prepared to serve Americans who need help. (The State Department has said, however, that it won't feed and shelter stranded Americans.)
Zealous, worst-case preparations by embassies could spark local panics, officials said, and brutally candid assessments of a country's Y2K preparedness could hurt diplomatic relations. And U.S. officials stress that many of their Y2K precautions overseas are backup plans only, for emergencies that probably won't occur.
Experts expect widespread computer disruptions at the New Year because some computer programs, especially older ones, were written to recognize only the last two digits of a year. They might read 2000 as 1900, spawning glitches that could lead to crashes. Many authorities say the worst problems will occur in developing countries, such as China, Indonesia, Brazil, and countries from the former Soviet Union.
The State Department has said that about half the world's countries bear a medium-to-high risk of Y2K-related failures in energy, communications and transportation systems.
In India, for example, "nowhere is the Y2K process complete, and contingency planning has barely begun," Williams-Bridgers, the State Department's inspector general, told Congress recently.
As elsewhere, one fear in India is that electricity, transportation or communication failures caused by Y2K bugs would cripple commerce, harm the delivery of water and food and generate unrest.
Perhaps the most sobering scenarios have political overtones. In some cases, U.S. planners fear, Americans may be blamed by foreign populations that are inconvenienced or harmed by Year 2000 failures.
"Since Y2K is easily identified in many cultures with the United States and the West in general, U.S. citizens and firms operating abroad may make inviting targets for those local elements," says a draft of the Naval War College's report on Y2K and international security.
Other concerns involve nuclear-powered electricity generators designed by the former Soviet Union. In Ukraine, where the infamous Chernobyl facility still operates a reactor near the borders of Belarus and Russia, "the government is taking steps to ameliorate the effects" of Y2K, said Peter Sawchyn, information officer at the U.S. embassy in Kiev. "We've been assured there is no danger of any nuclear accident."
Even so, "documentation for plant equipment and software in use in Soviet-designed reactors is poor or nonexistent," Lawrence K. Gershwin, science and technology specialist at the National Intelligence Council, told Congress in March. "Many of the vendors who supplied this equipment or software have not been in business since the fall of the Soviet Union and are not available to help."
In a speech to U.S. business people in June, Pifer, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said that "even in the best-case scenario, we suggest that American citizens in Ukraine prepare for Y2K problems."
For their part, U.S. embassy employees in Ukraine and elsewhere are taking Y2K in stride. Many are used to blackouts, terrorist threats and other dangers.
"It's almost like a hurricane preparation," said Mark Wildermuth, an embassy spokesman in the Ivory Coast. "You want to make sure there's some fresh water in the pantry."
But neither are they dismissing potential disruptions.
"We know that the State Department and our embassies are fully engaged to make proper preparations," said Riley Sever, a vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, a union of foreign service employees. "But all of us don't quite know what the implications will be. So we're apprehensive."