Ready For Y2K

On the surface, Southern Oregon's Rogue River Valley seems far removed from the worries of the high-tech world. But in an extensive endeavor to prepare for the millennium, volunteers here are practicing emergency rescues, stockpiling bulk grains and filling water storage tanks. As CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Bob Orr reports, the Y2K bug has sunk its teeth into this community.
"The whole concept of self-sufficiency here is an easy sermon to preach," says Ashland, Ore., Fire Chief Keith Woodley. "People believe it. It's what they want to do."

Police Captain Mike DeCapua agrees, saying people just want to be ready. "More than the norm [there are] people withdrawing large sums of money, people starting to stock up on canned goods and nonperishable types of items. We've got a deadline that's not going to change just because we want it to change."

If there is one person responsible for this area's interest in preparing for Y2K, it is Will Reishman. His house is hard to miss, as it's the one with the 32-foot trailer in the driveway, an emergency refuge in case of a millennium meltdown, he says. Equipped with a stove, a refrigerator and a freezer that run on propane, the trailer is just the beginning of his safety measures. He has also turned his backyard into a Y2K garden.

Reishman is a financial consultant with one of the nation's largest brokerage houses. Two years ago he became convinced that Y2K could cause serious disruptions.

"I would store food for three months," says Reishman. Does that mean that I believe that food will not be available for three months? Not at all. I think that food will perhaps be more expensive next year for a while due to transportation disruptions and other types."

So Reishman and other residents began asking government leaders, like Ashland City Administrator Mike Freeman, tough questions about preparedness.

"[They asked] have we done the proper analysis to look internally at our systems - our water, wastewater, electric systems, for example, to determine if we are gonna have any computer-related problems," says Freeman. "And at that time, we really couldn't answer yes or no."

While a few years ago, the city's reservoir and water treatment system was operated manually by just five men, now a computerized system helps the staff to maintain the plant, which serves nearly 20,000.

So the city of Ashland began to troubleshoot any potential computer problems, spending nearly a million dollars to upgrade all of the city's cyber works from its emergency systems to the water plant.

"There's an internal clock that controls the computer," says Freeman. "What we did is manually go in and change the date to January 1, 2000, to see if there was any disruption or impact on the electronics, and the bottom line was there was no problem."

At the same time, Ashland residents are preparing fr the worst-case scenario. If necessary, 500 people could be housed at Southern Oregon University. And food is already being stockpiled to take care of a thousand for two weeks.

If Ashland seems a bit energetic about preparing for potential disasters, there's a reason: In January 1997, a devastating flood sent shock waves through the valley.

"We had a 200-foot-wide stream of water running right through our business district," Fire Chief Woodley remembers. "It sure drove home to me the belief that you need to prepare for those kinds of things."

Woodley says he and the town made a pledge that no emergency would catch them unprepared again.

"We take a very simple approach," Woodley continues. "We just said, 'Hey, look, Y2K may or may not be a problem, but emergency preparedness is a good investment no matter what happens on January 1 in the year 2000.'"

By then, the city expects to have as many as 200 volunteers on its Community Emergency Response Team, ready if needed.

For its part, the federal government has launched a glitzy public relations campaign to reassure the American public that the millennium bug will not bring widespread disaster.

John Koskinen, President Clinton's point man on Y2K, has been traveling the country and encouraging communities and individuals to make the same kinds of preparations as Southern Oregon's.

"When the clock strikes midnight on December 31, New Year's Eve, 1999, we're confident there won't be any national showstoppers," says Koskinen.

But, he warns, that's not reason to foreswear preventative measures. "Those people who have no flashlights, no batteries, no food, no water on a long weekend in the middle of the winter are not doing themselves or anyone else a favor."

But more than half of the people questioned in a CBS News poll say they're doing nothing to prepare for Y2K, even though 80 percent believe there will be problems. Nearly one in five expects major problems.

Even if business and the federal government spend $100 billion on Y2K, some communities may not be doing enough, Koskinen says.

"We're concerned about any local community where the local mayor or the local county executive has not taken this as a major issue," he says, citing the need for planning at local phone, hospital and power facilities. "We don't want overreaction. But on the other hand, we won't want under reaction."

Liza Christian is the former head of Oregon's Rogue Valley Y2K Task Force. While Sunday Morning visited, she received a commendation from the county for her work. She believes the federal government is underselling the possibility of serious disruptions.

"There's a good potential that we'll suffer some kind of a recession," she says. "Their primary concern seems to [be to] avoid panic. And they think that if they put everything out there that they know that people will panic. I belive that shortchanges the intelligence of the American people."

Of course, no one knows for sure what will happen at midnight on Dec. 31. In Oregon, and elsewhere, predictions vary.

"I liken it to a bump in the road," says Freeman. "I mean some things might happen, but I thinkÂ…we're gonna be fine."

Reishman is storing extra firewood and preparing to barter if things get rough. "I've got a friend that loves to hunt. I'm sure he's gonna get enough this winter and I'll trade him lettuce for some good elk meat."

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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