The people who prepared for Y2K with a year to go
They worried the year 2000 could be 'a reason to kind of go crazy'
New Year's Eve revellers had barely finished ushering in 1999.
But there was an entire industry of people ready to warn them about what might be waiting on Dec. 31 that year, more than 360 days away.
Doomsday or dustbin of history?
"When the clock strikes midnight on the last day of this year, we'll have a rendezvous with destiny," said CBC reporter Dan Bjarnason, opening a report on the year 2000 — and why so many people were worried about it.
"Coming along with the millennium is something called the millennium bug, or Y2K," he explained. "No one's quite sure whether this'll turn out to be the digital equivalent of Noah's flood, or one of those doomsday prophecies that ends up in the dustbin of history."
The problem came down to a data issue. Early computer programmers used two digits to denote the year, with the first two — 19 — a given to save precious computing space.
When the calendar clicked to the four-digit year 2000, computer systems might read the year as 1900, or be unable to read it at all.
Either way, they were ready
In the hills of California, Bjarnason met a group of people who wanted to be prepared for the breakdown of society that could follow as those systems failed.
"If we look at the past few years, it doesn't take very much of a problem to give people in the big cities a reason to kind of go crazy," said cancer researcher Ken Snoke.
Along with several others, he was taking survival training from Tom Beasley and Susan Conniry.
"The first thing that's gonna happen when the electric goes off, whatever, people are going to panic. Because fear is going to set in," said Beasley. "'Oh my god, shelter, water, fire and food are now unavailable to me. My life is threatened.' What are they going to do?"
Keeping the lights on... this time
In Ontario, the provincial power utility was planning for the worst.
Even if the hydro grid held up, its integration with systems in other parts of Canada and the U.S. posed an array of "what-if" scenarios.
The corporation had already spent $125 million over three years to clean up its computer code. With a year to go, it had started thinking beyond the borders of the province.
"The worst scenario is that things just don't work at all," said Laurie Hay, a spokesperson at Ontario Hydro's command centre. "Equipment starts shutting down, and tripping, and events that happen in Ontario and the rest of the interconnections could collapse the power systems across North America."
(Such a scenario would become all too real in the summer of 2003, when a mass blackout struck Ontario and power systems in eight U.S. states. That was not related to Y2K, however.)
Averting a medical crisis
Even hospitals were preparing for Y2K. Elective surgeries would not be scheduled for the sensitive post-Dec. 31 period.
"What if, as the new year checks in, the computers check themselves out?" asked Bjarnason.