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Countdown to chaos ... W.Va. group readies for Y2K

January 02, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - A new year is upon us, but it almost seems overshadowed by what our computer-controlled society may bring us next year.

Just three days into 1999, people already are stockpiling food, wind-up radios and kerosene lamps - all in preparation for a possible breakdown in services come Jan. 1, 2000.

The worry is over Y2K, a potential flaw in the time functions of computer systems.

Many computer systems are programmed to recognize only the last two digits in a date, so 2000 may be misinterpreted as 1900. Some think there'll be minor inconveniences. Others fear the nation's power, communications, water and financial systems - all strung together by computer connections - could crash, prompting worldwide chaos.

It's a game of chance, but Shepherdstown area residents are not taking any chances.

They're looking at ways to collect water from their roofs, dusting off the idea of solar power and stockpiling food and fuel for oil lamps.

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For Jay Hurley, it's nothing unusual. His old-time shop, O'Hurley's General Store, is packed with cookware, hardware, housewares and books associated with early American living, a time when there wasn't the slightest hint of computers.

Hurley is one of about 25 people in town who are members of the Y2K Shepherdstown committee, which was formed to begin planning for potential problems at the turn of the century. One of the most common predictions among the group is that there will probably be power failures a year from now.

Not only will that affect heating systems in homes, it will shut down electric pumps on wells.

Hurley said part of his job will be developing a metal bucket which homeowers can slip through their well head to retrieve water.

"As soon as the holidays are over, we're going to develop a prototype," said Hurley, who plans to make the device in his blacksmith shop.

People across the Tri-State area are starting to think the same way.

Randy Roman, manager of Roman's Surplus store near Chambersburg, Pa. said he can't keep enough cases of dehydrated food on his shelves because of increased demand. Roman sells the military meals ready to eat, commonly referred to as MRE's.

Roman said he has sold dozens of cases of MREs for the last six months.

Customers are also buying 55-gallon drums to store water and gasoline, Roman said.

"One guy came in and picked up ten of them," said Roman.

William Ashforth, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Operations Systems Center in Martinsburg and member of Y2K Shepherdstown, said there are 40 to 70 billion computer chips in the world, many of which are embedded in sensors that control power plants, oil pipelines and railroad operations.

He said it's estimated that six percent of the chips, or up to 4.2 million of them, have a flaw in their time functions.

Considering the fact that people have been programming computers since 1960 and that the effort to correct the Y2K problem only started two years ago, there is no way programmers will be able to correct all problems by the year 2000, he said.

"A lot of people are really thinking about this. It's like a giant game of beat the clock here," said Y2K Shepherdstown member Mara Ashelman. "It's such a complex, interwoven web that no one really knows what will happen."

While Ashforth said it is still difficult to say what problems Y2K could pose, he said the Tri-State area will probably experience up to five days without power.

However, he added, there has been an impressive effort to correct potential problems, especially in the banking and power industries.

John Koskinen, chairman of a national commission dedicated to fixing the ''Y2K'' computer problem, said recently that 61 percent of the federal government's ''mission critical systems'' are already corrected. He has predicted that 85 to 90 percent will meet a March deadline for compliance.

The U.S. Coast Guard operation in Martinsburg is a sophisticated computer center that manages 33 different information systems, some of which support guard operations like search and rescue missions.

The center started preparing for Y2K two years ago, and it appears the facility will survive the dilemma, Ashforth said.

Other government agenices continue to monitor the situation.

Washington County Administrator Rodney Shoop said a Y2K committee was set up about six months ago to study the county's operations and determine whether there might be potential problems.

Shoop said he thinks the county's operations will be OK, although a computer-controlled financial management system has been replaced for fear it would not work this year, he said.

People have started snapping up items that might be useful in case disaster strikes.

Ashelman said she ordered a wind-up radio through a catalog, thinking it would be useful for communications if the power goes out. The radio is wound for 30 seconds, and runs for a half-hour, Ashelman said.

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