Patti Duncan stockpiled enough water, food for herself and her cat, and books she hadn’t read to survive two weeks in her Marysville home.
She was sick of hearing about the Y2K bug — a programming flaw that raised fears of computers misreading the year 2000 as 1900 and going haywire. Even so, Duncan told The Herald in December 1999 that she was ready, just in case.
Throughout 1999, we were bombarded with warnings of Y2K pandemonium. People were stashing food and cash. Agencies offered assurances — the power would stay on, financial markets wouldn’t collapse, travel wouldn’t be disrupted and life’s necessities would be available.
We prepared, because who knew for certain?
Each Monday throughout much of 1999, The Daily Herald featured a Y2K article about how our community was heading off potential computer disasters. Those stories took on a non-newsy sameness: Agencies were all set.
Twenty years ago, 2000 arrived without chaos. “Y2K mostly ‘nonevent’ in county,” said a laughably anticlimactic headline published in The Herald just after New Year’s 2000.
Looking back at the lead-up to that collective sigh of relief, we see earnest and expensive efforts to keep ships afloat and trains running on time. There was silliness, too. Remember that burning question of when the new millennium would actually arrive — 2000 or 2001?
In truth, the last millennium didn’t end until Dec. 31, 2000. No one wanted to hear it.
So how did the Y2K bug get started?
The problem was created when computers were programmed to use two digits to denote a year — “98” for 1998 — and read “00” as 1900 instead of 2000, according to a Jan. 2, 1999, Associated Press report. Early on, the shorthand was meant to save computer memory resources. The fear was that computers would determine they’d moved back a century — giving faulty readings, corrupting data or shutting down completely.
Agencies around here did their darnedest to calm fears.
The Snohomish County PUD boasted that the lights would stay on, thanks to multimillion-dollar investments in computer and software upgrades.
At Snohomish County’s emergency dispatch centers, staffers were learning how 911 calls were handled in the days before computers were critical to their job.
It was “all systems go” aboard the USS Ingraham when, nearly a year ahead of schedule, clocks were rolled forward to Jan. 1, 2000. After the ship’s combat system was tested, sailors offered a short rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” on that pseudo-new year at Naval Station Everett. The frigate was decommissioned in 2014.
A manager at the Everett Animal Shelter assured pet owners that microchips in their cats and dogs would be readable.
More than 100 people spent a Saturday in 1999 at Arlington High School for a program called “Is Your Family Ready for Y2K?” Speakers talked about three-month supplies of food, but also about life after death. “Don’t be caught spiritually unprepared,” a pastor told the crowd.
The head of now-closed Frontier Bank pledged that the dawn of a new year wouldn’t bring trouble. “We want to assure customers that the safest place for their money is in the bank,” wrote Robert Dickson, then the local bank’s president and CEO, in a letter to the editor published in March 1999.
Gov. Gary Locke created a Y2K office. And by early 1999, President Bill Clinton’s Y2K czar, John Koskinen, was telling Congress that despite reports of the Defense Department and Federal Aviation Administration lagging in preparedness, they’d be ready by 2000.
The Snohomish County Council was told that of 1,497 county computers, 481 had been identified as possible sources of Y2K problems. Computers that kept records at the Snohomish County Jail were upgraded to ensure they wouldn’t fizzle when the calendar turned over to 2000.
Community Transit and Everett Transit worked for months making sure computers would keep buses and people moving on schedule in 2000.
Prospective parents read reports that April 9, 1999, was the best date for conception if their desire was the birth of a “Y2Kid” on New Year’s Day.
There were positives following what some still see as Y2K nonsense.
Koskinen testified in Congress in early 2000, “I don’t know of a single person working on Y2K who thinks that they did not confront and avoid a major risk of systemic failure,” according to a Washington Post article published Monday. The article sums up a lesson in preparedness:
“Twenty years later, we are able to look at Y2K with derision, not because Y2K was a hoax, but because concerned people took the threat seriously and did something about it — a lesson for addressing myriad problems today,” said the article by Zachary Loeb.
Locally, Department of Emergency Management officials and others back then wanted people to have enough provisions to last a week. The county agency still emphasizes preparedness for disasters of all kinds.
Long ago, I used bottled water I’d stockpiled in my basement for Y2K during a camping trip to Glacier National Park. It’s time to restock for a real emergency.
I’m struck, reading about the new millennium, by what we didn’t see coming.
Duncan, the Marysville woman, said in 1999 that terrorism was among her biggest fears. Ahmed Ressam, a 34-year-old Algerian, had been arrested at Port Angeles on Dec. 14, 1999. He was later convicted in a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.
By September 2001, the nation was shocked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. And before the decade was out, the Great Recession brought bank failures, foreclosures and unemployment.
We were ready for Y2K, but those terrifying threats caught the world off guard.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.