Officials fight public panic over Y2K

To civic leaders and government officials, there's only one thing more frightening than the Year 2000 problem: The potential panic among the public.

CNET staff
4 min read

To civic leaders and government officials, there's only one thing more frightening than the Year 2000 problem: The potential panic among the public.

Analysts and government officials disagree on the degree of public panic over the Year 2000 technology problem that exists. But they agree that such hysteria, often spurred by Hollywood disaster flicks hoping to cash-in on the bug, is unwarranted.

Even as the nation's public and private sectors report significant progress on Y2K efforts, many consumers in the United States remain concerned about issues such as the availability of cash from their bank accounts, food, heating oil for their homes, and gas for their automobiles, according to analysts.

Fear of widespread panic about the glitch, which could lead to runs on financial institutions, a stock market crash, or even riots, has caused more concern among government officials than the bug's potential impact on technology.

Still, as the public becomes more aware of the possible impact of the millennium bug, many are taking their own steps, ranging from purchasing their first gun and trading in financial assets for cash and gold, to setting up Y2K shelters and stockpiling food and water in hopes of sheltering their lives from a Y2K panic.

A recent worldwide survey of 14,000 people conducted by the Gartner Group found that more than half plan to take two to six weeks worth of cash out of their bank accounts a week before January 1; 65 percent said they plan to modify their stock investments; 17 percent said they plan to top off their car with gas; and 60 percent will top off their home heating oil.

"The panic issue is if enough people do these things it will cause some interruptions and inconveniences in our daily process," said Lou Marcoccio, an analyst with the Gartner Group who has been following the Y2K issue for several years. Marcoccio said such panic is predominantly a problem in the United States.

What also has officials worried is an onslaught of big-budget films looking to take advantage of millennium madness.

NBC Studios has begun production on "Y2K," a disaster picture that imagines near-apocalyptic damage due to the much-hyped computer bug. The thriller stars actor Ken Olin as a techie trying to save the United States from disasters caused by computer failures at the start of the new century, Reuters reported.

Also rumored to be in the works is a film scheduled to be shot in New York City, which will star Chris O'Donnell as a hardworking programmer who happens upon a potentially lethal version of the bug.

"They should not do the movies [that will] contribute to the problem," said Marcoccio.

Officials say, at least in the United States, major progress has been made to prepare for the date change.

John Koskinen, who heads the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, disagrees with Marcoccio saying he doesn't think public panic is as widespread as it was a year ago when the lack of information about the computer glitch led many in the public to have unwarranted fears.

"The thing is we don't see as much [panic] as we did then. In some ways we're more concerned about people becoming too complacent about the problem as we get closer to January 1," said Koskinen.

He said the degree of awareness about the issue has risen among consumers thanks to efforts on the part of the private sector backed by the Year 2000 Information and Disclosure Act, which allowed companies to share information about their Y2K progress. "At this junction, we think the level of concern has diminished."

With people rushing to stock food shelves, refrigerators, and gas all in the same week or so before the date change, Marcoccio is worried about the strain on the nation's infrastructure. "It will cause some shortages of perishable goods. Not enough to impact the economy, but enough to cause" a burden on the immediate supply.

Even though they don't agree on how widespread the problem is, Koskinen and Marcoccio both insist the best way to ease fears is to get the word out about the problem and how much has been done to fix it.

"Companies should do proactive marketing. We'll see more of this in the fourth quarter, said Marcoccio. "For sometime banks and airline companies have already been doing this. That's the kind of thing more industries need to do."

Under Koskinen, government agencies have been doing a good job of disseminating information on the problem itself and the status of Y2K work done at agencies and in parts of the private sector.

"My concern now is as we move into fall we might see more panic if less info gets out there as companies and agencies complete their work and move on. We're not asking people to be complacent but to prepare," Koskinen said.

At a minimum, the government is telling people store enough food and water for a long weekend, supply themselves with batteries, radios, and flashlights.

"People need to take a look at what they have done during regular emergency situations," Koskinen said. "The should also take a look at their own personal circumstances," if they are elderly or have other unique requirements.

Both agreed that staying on top of the Y2K problem without fearing it should make for a smooth transition into the new year.