20 Years Ago, Y2K Hysteria Led to Emergency Bunkers and Cost the U.S. $100 Billion

"If something happens and I didn't prepare my family, I couldn't live with myself," said one woman

Photo: Al Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty

Two decades ago, the world was sent into a panic over technology.

As 1999 came to a close, the U.S. government and programmers around the world were scrambling to finish fixing flawed computer software that some predicted would send civilization into chaos when the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2000.

The “Millennium Bug,” or Y2K as it is commonly known, arose when experts in the early days of computing cut the code that designated the year from four digits to two, which changed “1998” to “98,” in order to save data space on hard drives, according to National Geographic. But with the new millennium approaching, experts realized that computers might not see “00” as the year “2000.” Instead, they feared, it could be interpreted as “1900.”

This presented a slew of problems for any computer-based system that depended on the date in calculations. Banks that issued interest rates on a daily basis could suddenly see a loan plummet to a rate for minus 100 years, the magazine explained. Flights, too, could be disrupted since airlines kept flight schedules and records on computers.

Then-President Bill Clinton, while addressing the Y2K problem in 1998, urged businesses to do their part to prepare and update their computer codes.

“Now, this is not one of the summer movies where you can close your eyes during the scary parts,” he said. “Every business, of every size, with eyes wide open, must face the future and act.”

An operator at Warsaw’s Main Electric Power Station on December 30, 1999.

While many experts assured the public that they could celebrate the new year without any significant disruptions, there was increasing anxiety as the date approached. For some, “Y2K” had become synonymous with “doomsday.”

For its January 18, 1999 issue, Time magazine rang in the year with the words “The End of the World!?!” on its cover. Other publications would issue “Y2K Checklists,” which advised people to have medicine, a few day’s cash and up-to-date paper records of all financial transactions. Some families even went as far as setting up emergency bunkers in their basements to ride out the feared impending apocalypse.

In the months leading up to January 2000, a California man filed a class-action lawsuit against six retailers, including Office Depot and the now-defunct Circuit City and CompUSA, for failing to warn buyers about electronics that were not Y2K compliant. Frustration was mounting across the country.

“I’m waiting for disaster,” Jay Wishner, a Manhattan internet consultant told the New York Daily News days before New Years 2000. “Do I have cases of food! … Cases of rice, containers of water, canned ham and vegetables. I am going to live better with or without Y2K.”

A 12-year-old boy said his mother was stocking up on flashlights but had nothing to power them.

“My mom keeps at least 17 blankets in the house, and we have 20 flashlights, but none with batteries,” he told the newspaper. “We have a lot of leftover candles from Chanukah.”

NBC even showed a made-for-TV movie that played on the chance that everything that experts said could go wrong actually did. “It’s only a movie, but Y2K raises real concerns,” read a CNN headline about the impact of the film.

That’s what many families around the country were focusing on — the slight chance that the experts were wrong.

“This isn’t about computers anymore,” Diann Powell told the Los Angeles Times in April 1999. “It’s really a family issue. If something happens and I didn’t prepare my family, I couldn’t live with myself.”

And she wasn’t planning on sharing her supplies with those who didn’t prepare.

“I don’t think anyone in their right mind would tell someone they had food and water in their house,” she added.

But when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, the lights stayed on and society remained intact. There was no global meltdown after all, largely thanks to the programmers who worked tirelessly to implement the fixes in the lead up to the big day.

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The night did not go off entirely without a hitch, though.

In the U.K., incorrect Down’s syndrome test results were sent to 154 pregnant women due to a computer error, which resulted in two abortions being carried out, according to The Guardian. In Japan, an alarm at a nuclear power plant went off just after midnight, though there was no danger. And in the U.S., about 150 slot machines at race tracks in Delaware stopped working. But some places, like the U.S. Naval Observatory, reported their computers registering the year as “19100” instead of 2000.

In all, preparation for Y2K cost the U.S. upwards of $100 billion, the Washington Post reported in November 1999, though many have since credited Y2K with creating new jobs and highlighting the importance of information technology employees.

Interestingly enough, it wouldn’t be until nearly two decades later, in June 2017, that the government finally eliminated paperwork obligations for federal agencies that ordered them to provide updates on their preparedness for the bug. One of these requirements had the Pentagon file a report every time a small business vendor was paid, which took up to 1,200 manhours a year, according to Bloomberg.

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