Government: New Year's Eve
Who's Afraid of Y2K?
The feds say not to worry, but guess who'll be up all night
Normally, Howard Diamond celebrates a quiet New Year's Eve at home. But this year things will be very different. As the National Weather Service's Y2K honcho, Diamond will be one of thousands of federal workers on the job, making sure that the world doesn't end in digital disaster as the new millennium dawns.
In fact, it will be midnight madness at the whole alphabet soup of Washington agencies. The Federal Reserve and the Treasury Dept. will be monitoring financial markets, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will keep a close eye on the air-traffic control system, and NASA will be lulling many of its operations to sleep. The CIA is even ready to go into full survivalist mode if catastrophe hits. And overseeing this huge operation will be a Y2K war room a few blocks from the White House.
For his part, Diamond will first be checking on worldwide weather-monitoring systems from an office building on the seedy outskirts of downtown Silver Spring, Md. After working a stint in the wee hours of Dec. 31 making sure the systems in Australia survive the rollover, he'll begin a 12-hour all-nighter at 6 p.m. That's one hour before the strike of midnight universal time (formerly known as Greenwich Mean Time) when many meteorological systems will leap from 1999 to 2000. After that, local systems in each time zone will have their own midnights, beginning with Puerto Rico at 11 p.m. (EST) and ending with western Samoa many hours later.FIREWORKS. While the Clintons are partying with a few hundred of their closest friends at the White House and popping over to an outdoor concert and fireworks display on the Mall, Washington's working stiffs will be manning computers all around town. At the Fed, about 75 employees will be ensconced in a cafeteria-turned-command center. At least one Fed governor--either Edward W. Kelley Jr. or Vice-Chair Roger W. Ferguson Jr.--will spend the night at the office. Even Chairman Alan Greenspan will be on call. The Boston Fed will be watching the payments system. And the New York Fed will monitor the worldwide financial markets.
Treasury will be following the money, too. About 30 employees will be running a 24-hour command center throughout the holiday weekend. And just to be sure its lights stay on, Treasury has installed a generator on the patio. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be running 24 hours a day from Dec. 28 through Jan. 4. "If you look at us the night of New Year's Eve," says FEMA's Marc Wolfson, "it will look identical to when Hurricane Floyd was bearing down on us."
For all the worries about the creaky air-traffic control system's ability to handle the date change, controllers probably won't have much to do on New Year's Eve. Some carriers, including Virgin Atlantic Airways, are shutting down. And others are running such limited schedules that controllers will probably spend their midnight shifts trying to stay awake. "Nothing has been the same since.
Like most successful entrepreneurs, a little competition never scared Alice, who taught school to inner-city kids in Brooklyn and raised two children of her own before opening West Side Kids in 1981. Even before Noodle Kidoodle's arrival, she competed with more than a half-dozen nearby toy stores. "I've never been in trouble. I've never overbought. I never bought anything just because it was a fad," says Alice. She actually quit selling Beanie Babies shortly after witnessrty at its Herndon (Va.) command center. No fancy vittles, though, for the agency that regulates airlines that get away with serving the rest of us gray meat. The midnight menu: cold cuts and champagne.
Airlines aren't the only ones slowing down. NASA will stop testing and doing observations and will put its satellites into quiet mode. Mostly, agency officials will just be watching to make sure nothing happens to its billions of dollars' worth of gear. "We are going to be powering the agency down," says spokesman Brian R. Dunbar.
The CIA, of course, never sleeps. It has big plans for New Year's but won't tell what they are. Sources say the spooks have contingency plans in place for the weeks before and after Dec. 31. Among them: going off municipal electricity and water and operating on its own internal systems. An agency spokeswoman denies it. But, then, that's what CIA spokespeople do.
Wherever it gets its electricity, the CIA--along with every other agency--will be feeding data into the Y2K Information Coordination Center. The $50 million operation will be housed in two floors of a nondescript private office building. There, Clinton's Y2K chief, John Koskinen, and a staff of up to 200 will be manning phones and computers, holding press briefings, and generally keeping an eye on the date roll-over throughout the world. The center will have a hotline for people to report problems (888 USA4-Y2K). And folks who really have no life can follow the action on its Web site (www.Y2K.gov).
After years of planning and testing, the government's Y2K mavens expect that their night will be, well, really boring. Many agencies are legally barred from providing food or even silly hats. But the folks who'll be stuck in front of their screens do see one advantage. "I think it will be a great story to tell," says the weather service's Diamond. "Hey, we were there."By Howard Gleckman, with John Carey, Stan Crock, and Rich Miller, in Washington