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50 state emergency declarations ready for President Clinton to sign

WASHINGTON (BP)–Fifty declarations of emergency, one for each state, have been prepared for President Clinton to sign on New Year’s weekend if regional computer glitches occur in the United States due to the “Y2K” problem.

“For the weekend beginning New Year’s Eve, we have prepared 50 emergency declarations in case there is any scenario in which a local area’s problems cannot be handled by local and state emergency personnel and a request for a presidential declaration of emergency is requested by a governor,” said Mark Wolfson, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency told Baptist Press.

FEMA, based in Georgia, is responsible for coordinating the federal government’s nonmilitary response to all national emergencies, such as those caused by acts of terrorism, war, hurricanes, tornadoes and disruptions of power or other necessary services which could be sparked by Y2K glitches related to computer’s coping with the turn of the millennium.

Federal authorities and civilian experts on the Y2K bug expect, at most, regional essential service disruptions in the United States. But widespread, serious and life-threatening problems could occur in other nations, especially those such as Russia, which lack the funds to pay to upgrade their systems to prevent Y2K computer glitches.

“We could see massive failures of power, phone and other communications systems in Russia and other nations that have reasonably developed infrastructure but which have failed to spend the billions needed to ensure their systems will not crash,” said Michael Hyatt, author of “The Millennial Bug” and “The Y2K Personal Survival Guide,” both published by Regenery Press. Hyatt is a vice president of Thomas Nelson Publishers in Nashville, Tenn.

How overseas problems impact the United States is not clear at this point. But Hyatt and others have said if power failures occur in the midst of the bitterly cold winters in Russia, North Korea, China and in other nations, deaths from exposure and other problems may result. “Such disruptions could quickly lead to disorder, which could create problems not only within that nation, but for its neighbors, the United States and other nations,” Hyatt said.

What concerns Hyatt most of all is that terrorists might use any glitches that do occur in the United States to launch terrorist strikes here, relying on the Y2K computer failures to divert or severely limit police response to such actions. Hyatt said the United States and/or its allies could be hit by terrorist acts coordinated with battles between nations. Or skirmishes could break out between nations that are unrelated to the terrorist actions other than the belligerents also rely on the Y2K problems to impact any response by the nation being attacked.

A recent news report, carried on an Internet wire news service called Worldnetdaily.com, said the president is planning to sign a national declaration of emergency on Dec. 28. But Wolfson and Jack Gribben, White House spokesman for President Clinton’s Y2K Council, question whether the president even has the authority to declare a national emergency in response to anything less than an act of war. Both said, at the very least, there is no precedent for such a nationwide emergency being declared, other than actions taken under other designations by President Roosevelt during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Hyatt responded to the Worldnetdaily.com article by telling readers of his Internet newsletter that the story appeared to overemphasize the potential for Y2K-related problems.

“We have no idea where they got the date of Dec. 28,” Gribben told Baptist Press, referring to Worldnetdaily’s story. “Emergency declarations, by their substance, are made in response to a disaster, not before it occurs.” The president will sign any state emergency declarations sought by governors only on or after Jan. 1, when Y2K problems would crop up, if at all, Gribben said.

“I don’t think there has ever been a preemptive emergency declaration,” he said, noting, however, that the White House has been swamped with calls from the national press ever since the Worldnetdaily.com story ran.

Americans do not need to worry about whether there is some sinister plan to circumvent their individual liberties by calling out the National Guard nationwide, Hyatt said, but rather, that the president and federal agencies are telling businesses one thing and individual Americans another.

“To the people, the federal government, from the president on down, is saying there will be little or no impact. But to the business community, the federal government is saying they expect some disruptions,” Hyatt said. This could give Americans a false sense of security which could backfire if they panic when regional power outages and other problems occur, he said.

Both Gribben and Wolfson said if any computer glitches happen, they expect such problems will be localized within states, or at worst, within regions that overlap contiguous states. Any such problems will be closely monitored by a main FEMA emergency operations center in Washington, D.C., in close communication with FEMA’s 10 regional operations centers scattered throughout the nation.

“Our outlook continues as it has been for some time, based on our assessment reports, that there will be no major widespread disruptions in the United States,” Wolfson said. “But there may be scattered power, telephone and cable outages in areas around the nation. That is what we are gearing up to respond to.”

The Y2K bug is a problem created by a programming decision made when personal computers were in their infancy. Because computer memory was much more expensive to produce a decade and more ago than it is now, programmers for most computer software abbreviated the year each program was created to the last two digits. By doing so, there is an expectation that computers will read the year 2000, which will appear only as 00, as being 1900 instead of 2000.

American businesses, industry and local, state and federal government agencies have spent billions of dollars to rewrite or replace aging computer software created with only two digits for the year. But computers that have not been corrected could shut down and refuse to operate, or eliminate or otherwise damage existing software as it would appear to the computer’s electronics that the software has not yet been created.

“I consider myself a Y2K agnostic,” Hyatt said. “All the data we have on Y2K is self-reported. Very little is certified. We really don’t know if the original problem would have created any crisis. But still, it is best to err on the side of being prepared.”

Gribben, Wolfson and Hyatt said individuals should have a three-day survival kit on hand to ride out any disruptions in power or food supply. Each kit should include three days of non-tap water, canned food, batteries, flashlights, battery-operated radios and so forth. A gallon of bottled water should be purchased and set aside for each member of the family for three days or more.

“Everyone should have a three-day emergency kit comprised of such things anyway,” Wolfson said. “There are always storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters that could strike your area, disrupting essential services and forcing you to rely on whatever you have at hand.”

A list of emergency items to have on hand can be found on the White House Y2K preparedness site, available at www.whitehouse.gov.

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  • Daniel Walker Guido