Grist for the Millennium

Y2K hucksters cash in on fear of cataclysmic calendar crash 'n' burn

"The railroads went off their manual system years ago," she says. "They won't be running to capacity. And if they're not running, then power plants won't get coal. If the plants can't get coal, then there's no power, then there's no electricity, then no water, no gas, no sewage . . ."

And, inevitably, chaos.
Since that realization, Ball's life has dramatically changed. A former marketer of phone cards and a nutritional counselor, today she works full time on her Y2K preparedness.

Part of that preparedness is conducting research. Every day Ball logs onto the Internet ("Don't look at my password, now,") and runs through her favorite browser bookmarks, searching for the latest updates.

Examining Ball's Internet news diet, it's easy to see why she fears the millennium. One Web site says that representatives from Russia and the U.S. will convene in Colorado on New Year's Eve, phones by their sides, to ensure there are no accidental nuclear missile launches. The source of that loopy story? CNN Interactive.

The less-factual sites are even more frightening, saying America will be without electricity for 15 years, a medieval bartering system will replace banking, and the government will seize stockpiled food. Many such Webmasters predict significant failures as crucial, pre-Y2K computer system test dates roll over in the coming months. They also say that if such failures do occur, the public won't be told. It's the perfect spin--if something goes wrong, it proves Y2K will be a crisis. If you hear nothing, it proves Y2K will be a crisis.

"Nuke Plants Need to Stockpile Fuel," says Ball, reading a headline. "They're waiting 'til the last minute! Man could have fixed all this years ago, but nobody wanted to put in the time."

As she peruses the Internet, Ball takes comfort in the five large plastic cases of dehydrated food stacked behind her. A sample inventory:

* 56 packages of macaroni and cheese
* 116 packages of Top Ramen
* 35 cans of Starkist tuna
* 24 cans of Taco Bell refried beans
* 48 rolls of toilet paper
* 16 pounds of baking soda

The next purchase on Ball's list is a used camper to replace her beloved black and gold, 1996 Lexus sport coupe ("My toy," she says sadly). Sometime around November, she'll pack up her camper and join a group of 10 families from her church who've acquired an acre of desert. She won't say exactly where. It's a secret--although she does acknowledge that once the social breakdown begins, stragglers may discover the camp.

"One old couple in the group has said they'd adopt me," Ball says, "they're going to be my parents."

Ball glows at the idea. Her real parents are dead. So is one of her two sons, two of her three sisters and her ex-husband. "Lots of deaths in my family," she says.

Lots of deaths, but not her. Ball has survived, that's what she does.
Her only worry now is that all her planning won't be enough.
Since her remaining family doesn't believe in the Y2K problem, Ball must stockpile for all eight of them. But who knows how many months the shortages will last? And it's getting tougher every day to get specialty survival supplies.

"My son says, 'Oh mom, I know there're going to be bumps in the road, but it's not going to be as bad as you think,'" Ball says. "But by the time they realize, it will be too late to buy dehydrated food.

"Even now you can't get generators in California. One of the suppliers has a two-month wait. A few weeks ago, they only had a one-month wait."

She pauses, catching a glance of herself in one of her mirrors. She used to be a model.

"Some will break their own windows," she continues, "to make it look like the house has already been looted. There will be home invasions. Looters will show up at your door, break it down and either kill you or demand you stand aside. It will be kill or be killed."

She turns, leans forward and drops her voice. A confession:
"It's exciting," she whispers.

Kris McChesney, assistant information technology director for the City of Phoenix, forms her answer carefully when asked why city representatives decline invitations to Y2K events like the summit at Phoenix First Assembly.

"We've made an informal policy only to participate in government Y2K events," she says.

Separation of church and state?
Besides, she adds, the city's biggest Y2K concern is panic, and speakers like Klein aren't exactly calming.

Not to mention, the entire summit was sponsored by local coin salesman Craig Smith.

Eighteen years ago in his Phoenix bedroom, Craig Smith founded the gold and silver coin brokerage company Swiss America Trading Corporation. Two years ago, Smith established the Year 2000 National Education Taskforce (Y2KNET), which he describes as a collective of Y2K information from various sources.

Some might say owning a gold coin company and a Y2K information network constitutes a conflict of interest. Others might call it synergy. But the 44-year-old businessman claims humanitarianism drives him to promote Y2K awareness, and if he makes some money in the process, well, he certainly won't complain.

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