Y2K generates barely any fear here

November 1, 1999
By Martin J. Moylan

Never mind the reassurances about the Y2K bug offered by government and big corporations. Keith Peterson knows firsthand how worried most people are about it.

He sells generators. Handy things to have if the power companies leave us without juice in the middle of winter. And sales are, well, not electrifying.

``We have sold one generator in the past 2 1/2 months,'' says Peterson, a salesman at the Anoka-Ramsey Sport Center in Ramsey. ``When people come in to look at them, I ask if they're worried about Y2K. They laugh. Everyone thinks nothing is going to happen.''

Generator sales are slow over at Honda Town in Minneapolis, too. ``After the summer, we though they'd start to move,'' says owner Marge Kirkholm. ``People don't seem worried.''

To be sure, there are some people who really are worried about the software flaw, which can cause computers to fail to recognize the Year 2000 and malfunction. They are readying themselves for troubles they suspect could last weeks, months or years. They're buying generators, wood stoves, caseloads of canned and freeze-dried food and other survival essentials.

But as Jan. 1, 2000, draws closer, more people have decided the millennium bug's bite might sting but it won't cripple.

The latest Y2K Gallup Poll, done in August, found that people feel there will be some problems with everything from air traffic control systems to banks and grocery stores. That's not surprising, given the pervasive influence computers have on our lives. Some bugs will be missed. Some fixes won't work.

But overall, 86 percent of adults expect the bug will cause relatively minor problems or no problems at all. Only 7 percent suspect it will cause major problems for them.

Businesses and government have spent billions of dollars to find and fix the bug. And most Americans say they're confident that extermination efforts will go well. Most large businesses know the severe consequences they face if they're not ready for Y2K but their competitors are.

With 60 days to go before the New Year, providers of critical goods and service are ready, says Kevin Leuer, director of the Minnesota's office of emergency management. ``All indications are that water, gas and other utilities are OK and ready for Y2K,'' he says. ``We hope people will have a safe, sane and sober rollover.''

Of course, the phone system may have problems as we enter the New Year. But that's not because of the Y2K bug. US West and other phone companies worry that their networks may be overwhelmed, as unprecedented numbers of people call friends and family to bid them a happy new millennium.

``The phone network will work as well on Jan. 1 as it does today,'' says William White, executive director of US West's Year 2000 initiative. ``But it could be like Mother's Day. If people find all circuits are busy at times, they shouldn't jump to the conclusion the phones are broken. It could just be a very busy day.''

Internet service, too, may slow, since it depends so much on the phone network and many more folks than usual may be surfing the Web that day.

NSP, the region's leading provider of electricity and natural gas, has repeatedly vowed it is Y2K ready. Its consistent assurances should bring it kudos if correct. If it turns out NSP is not ready, though, expect harsh criticism.

``We're honestly confident that we will not have any disruptions in customer service (due to the Y2K bug) on, before, or after New Year's Eve,'' says Paul Anders, NSP's chief information officer.

Other utilities insist they are ready, too. Ditto for the organizations and businesses responsible for everything from sewers and bus service to groceries and cable TV.

The millennium bug won't threaten the safety of bank customers' money or keep them from withdrawing it whenever they want, says Jim Lyon, senior vice president, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

The Fed, in fact, is ready to boost the amount of money in circulation by $200 billion or more, in case people decide they want more cash.

``No one can say that there won't be isolated glitches, but we are confident that the nation's financial system is prepared for the century rollover,'' says Lyon. ``We expect all the usual payment methods, including checks, credit cards, debit cards, ATMs, direct deposit and electronic wire transfer to work. We believe that there is no need for people to have large amounts of cash on hand, which is risky. It is important to remember that money in the bank is safe and insured.''

State officials continue to recommend that people prepare for Y2K as they would for an approaching winter storm that could muck up things for several days.

The precautions are not extraordinary. Officials, for instance, advise people to keep several days' supply of food on hand and be ready in case there is a loss of power or heat. They should keep copies of important records, which they should be doing already anyway.

``Treat it as if it were a (possible) winter storm,'' says David Fisher, commissioner of the Department of Administration and Office of Technology. ``Be prepared for a few days of potential disruptions. Make sure you'll be comfortable in your home.

Fisher is more concerned about panic than he is about the bug.

``People might overreact and do things -- in the stock market, for instance -- that they might not otherwise do,'' he says. ``We should hang in there and not get panicky. For most of us in Minnesota, this won't be anything more than an interesting passage of time.''

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