We staff members of the New Mexico State Emergency Management Planning and Coordination Bureau [EMPAC] didn’t laugh much. We were a collection of old guys mostly retired from something else, except for a few youngsters, mostly support and training staff.
Radiation Response and Recovery [the RAD catchers] was a retiree Bird Colonel from the US Army named Sam. Hazardous Materials Response and Recovery was headed by Joe, a retired US Air Force Lt. Colonel who’d piloted B47s for the Strategic Air Command in his youth. Joe sat at the end of a runway in a B47 loaded with hydrogen bombs for two weeks during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Natural Disasters – Earthquake Preparedness was a shot-up in-Vietnam old Lt. Colonel, infantry. And so on. My program was Flood Plain Management and local coordination and training for one of the regions. Too long out of the military to remember whether I was enlisted or an officer.
Our Bureau Chief, Larry, was a retired Master Sergeant, US Army Search and Rescue, another Vietnam vet. An enlisted man coordinating the activities of field grade officers, giving instructions, approving their work and their per diem expenditures would have been a potential source of laughter if we’d all held our mouths right, but “That’s what happens when you put an enlisted man doing the job of an officer,” was a frequent grumble every time something went awry.
The staff meeting was in the bomb shelter of the old National Guard Headquarters building in Santa Fe where our offices were located.
“I had a weird call from one of the aids to the Governor this morning.”Larry’s eyes searched our dozen blank faces. “Any of you know anything about Y2K?” Calls from the Governor’s office to anyone at EMPAC was bad news. We liked to think we were invisible, nobody knew we existed. This particular governor, however, we considered a space cadet. A flake.
We all exchanged scowls while my mind toyed with the phrase. “Y2K. Y2K? Where the hell have I heard about Y2K lately?” The thing rang a bell in my head, but I couldn’t think why.
“The Gov just got back from a meeting of the Association of State Governors. They did a big program on Y2K. He’s all excited about it. Evidently there’s some damned thing going on with computers to make them all fail January first, 2000.” Sneers and a chuckle or two. We all agreed on something.
“Do any of you know what other states are doing? Any ideas what we should be doing? We have to send an answer over to the Gov’s office. We have to put together a plan of some kind.”
Background rumble around the table. “Y2K? Why the hell would all the computers crash when the 20th century turns over?” “Damned idiot governor.”
“Hmmm computers. That’s it.” Now I remembered.
“It’s all a farce, Larry.” I was remembering a conversation and exchange of emails I’d had with my ex-wife. “Carolyn heads the department in Texas that’s supposed to be preparing for it. She told me a while back they were spending a lot of money on it, hiring a lot of people. Pissed her off when I said it was just another bureaucratic scare plot to build more empires.”
Larry stared at me, mind busy with what I’d said. “Could you find out what they are doing over there?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Also, get on the internet. Find out what people are saying is going to happen. Find out everything you can about what all the other states are doing.”
The others in the room relaxed a little. No one wanted this project and now it was clearly mine. “How much time do you want me to spend on this?”
“A week. Two maybe. We just need to put together a plan that makes sense.”
As I left the staff meeting I was feeling pleased with the diversion this offered me. Something away from flood plain management and routine emergency management coordination. I didn’t expect it to be any problem at all.
I began by sending an email to Carolyn. This was the response I got:
“The Year 2000 deal is a real threat. Lots of people have been doing lots of
work to mitigate the consequences, and we’re still ‘influencing the future’.
The real problem is that we can generally fix what we know about, but there is
so much we don’t know.
For example, the power grid – there are many many power generators and power distributors in this country, and many “embedded systems” in each company. Some companies are taking the problem seriously by contacting their suppliers (of power grid equipment, as an example) to see if components will work.
Afraid of litigation, the manufacturers hem and haw around and provide no definitive data. Yes, I think there will be power outages, thus water problems, heating problems, etc, but I don’t think the whole US will go dark, and we still have some time to work on it.
One scenario I’ve heard is that elect. companies will work to distribute what power they have so that rolling black or brown outs will limit the negative affects of the power failures.
Some good news, the banking industry in the US is in very good shape. Our only
fear there is fear itself. I think a lot of IT systems are being corrected at a
more rapid pace than originally anticipated, and governors like yours and mine
are at least anticipating problems so they can prepare for them. I think if the
people anticipate the problems, and know that someone has already developed a
work around, we’ll be fine.
Any disruptions will probably be short lived.
I could go on, but duty calls.
I trusted Carolyn about as much as any man can trust an ex-wife after 25 years of marriage.
I didn’t know it yet, but for me this began the end of one lifetime and heralded the start of another.
I was one of those weirdos who believed so thoroughly in Y2K that I quit the last years of a career, cashed in my retirement, walked away from the IRS, all the bills, a house mortgage, totally believing it was all moot because in just a few months it would all collapse. I figured there was a chance high enough to bet on that everyone left after the chaos would be wandering around hungry, diseased, and dying, if the computer gurus were telling the truth. January 1, 1999, I performed the irreversible deed. The retirement money made a down payment on 140 acres of land in remote high desert, I drilled a well, built a cabin, stocked up on countless items the throngs of hopeless survivors would need to survive a bit longer.
I knew there was a medium possibility the IRS, the land payments, all the rest would eventually come due if Y2K didn’t happen, but I thought the consequences of it happening and me not doing it were worse than the alternative of taking the plunge and it not happening. Once a person considers seriously the possibility that society might collapse, it’s surprising how reasonable it seems to think so.
Did my best to be a refugee camp waiting to happen. I bought a lot of chicks to be eggs and food for the future hungry. I knew I couldn’t survive long because of the shelf-life of a medication I require to stay alive, but I had hopes a few folks could survive thanks to a lot of training and experience I’d had in woods lore, emergency management, and survival. I moved in to a tent on the 140 acres in mid-1999, until the cabin was built and the well drilled.
I spent the next 16-18 months pretty much alone, sometimes going weeks without seeing another person. It was the best time of my entire life. I loved it. I wouldn’t change a minute of 1999 until now, but they were the hardest years I’ve ever lived. I’m a risk taker, more than most, but I’m also a damned fool. Fool enough to believe Y2K not happening January 1, 2000, doesn’t mean Y2K won’t ever happen. But also fool enough to know I’m not wise enough to know when it will, nor whether it will.
This blog will include some of the material written during that time. The rest is a compilation of reflections, before and since, of my varied runs at the brick wall of something rhyming with wisdom.
Steve Goodman–The 20th Century is Almost Over