Officials reassure public on Y2K; But words of comfort combine with caveats to prepare anyway; Forum planned tonight; Most residents seem unperturbed by risk, government says


Howard County government's Y2K message is clear -- sort of.

Officials say no disasters are likely to strike when the clock hits midnight New Year's Eve -- but stock up on bottled water, canned food, cash and prescription medicines anyway.

For those with questions, tonight is the second and perhaps final chance to speak to everyone from County Executive James N. Robey on down, plus utility company representatives. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Ten Oaks Ballroom, 5000 Signal Bell Lane.

Unlike the first meeting, which drew more than 100 people to the County Council chamber July 26, the Clarksville gathering will not be shown live on cable television.

County officials say public unease about Y2K seems to be low.

Richard Biggs, the county's information systems director, says he hasn't received one question from the public, and officials say they expect no big problems. Biggs said the county's computers have been tested three times and not a glitch was detected.

"Our computers are ready. We will be ready," Robey said recently. That said, he wants people to worry some -- and not wait until Dec. 31 to begin buying gasoline, batteries and other necessary items.

"If you look at the [recent] hurricane, you have an understanding that you should have the basic things," he said, "but don't wait until the last day or two to do it."

Andy Clark says a lot of his customers are taking that last piece of advice to heart.

Clark, who owns Clark Do-It Center, a large hardware and home improvement store on U.S. 40 west of Enchanted Forest, says "heavy-duty computer programmers" are among his best customers lately for wood stoves and other low-tech survival equipment. He says those customers tell him that many businesses won't be ready for Y2K, causing disruptions in some services.

Clark, who recently bought an 11,000-pound, 250,000-watt generator to power his store after losing electricity during Tropical Storm Floyd, sells solar ovens, home basement-sized water storage tanks, portable heaters, generators, gas grills and other nonelectric gadgets.

"This is the busiest month we've ever had," Clark said last week.

A presentation on individual and family preparedness will be made at tonight's meeting by Howard County's Office of Emergency Management.

The panel at the meeting will include experts from water, gas, electric and telecommunications utilities, local and state government, emergency management professionals, the Federal Reserve, Howard County General Hospital and county schools.

"I think right now, we feel people should be prepared for any emergency, like the last storm," said Victoria Goodman, the county's public information officer.

Robey says he wants to raise public awareness now, to help avoid situations like lines at gas stations Dec. 31. Still, the official line is that little, if anything, is likely to happen when the new year arrives.

Of course, there are skeptics.

Clark notes that although he's spent more than $40,000 readying his store for Y2K, problems with his own computer programs keep popping up.

"That doesn't leave you with a great sense of confidence," he said.

As for official assurances that all is ready, he shrugged.

"That's what they're supposed to say."

Pub Date: 9/27/99

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