True, the book of revelation never mentioned Charmin. But as Nate, a 46-year-old CPA, explains it, the basics will be important when computers fail in the year 2000 and the world is plunged into millennial chaos. "I guess I can use leaves if I need to," he says, "but I have to draw the line somewhere." At least he knows where he'll be drawing his line in the sand: Safe Haven, an 89-acre compound he founded last spring in rural Mississippi with a buddy from his office. As it turned out, they weren't the only ones spooked by doomsday scenarios about computer networks going haywire on Jan. 1, 2000: 23 people have already put down deposits on sites where they can pitch a tent or park an RV come late 1999. Doug, another partner in the project, proudly exhibits the PVC pipes rigged to carry water from Safe Haven's wells to the 181 individual lots. He gestures toward the future site of a vegetable garden and a community center. Doug says he hopes they'll be able to hook a TV and VCR up to the diesel generator in the community center: "My kids might go nuts if they can't watch 'Rugrats'."
The apocalypse: it's not just for religious extremists anymore. While most of us haven't even gotten around to securing dinner reservations for Dec. 31, 1999, secular survivalists have figured out exactly how many pounds of lentils and Kraft macaroni and cheese their families will need if computer failures disrupt the country's food-distribution system. They worry that the Millennium Bug will cause widespread rioting in the cities and figure that the best place to be when the National Guard is called out is as far away as possible. Many secular survivalists (like Nate and Doug) don't like to give reporters their last names or the locations of their rural hideouts--who wants to be overrun with looters when the lights go off in 2000?--and it's difficult to estimate just how many people plan to take these kinds of extraordinary measures. But judging from the hundreds of Web sites and the booming business being done by Y2K real-estate agents and retailers, thousands of ordinary Americans are quietly making plans for what they call teotwawki--The End of the World as We Know It.
Here's what they fear: the programmers working frantically to fix the computers that will read the year 2000 as 1900 won't be done by deadline. On Jan. 1, 2000, the electricity grid will go dead. Businesses will fail and the stock market will plummet. As food becomes scarce, panic and looting will set in. Or at least that's the scenario that has Scott Olmsted, an affable California computer programmer, spending his weekends retrofitting a mobile home in the desert with a wood stove, food stockpiles and a propane generator. In the beginning, says Olmsted, even his wife and stepson thought he was a little nuts. But he speculates that "So, what are you doing to prepare for Y2K?" will soon be a common cocktail-party icebreaker. "Of course, by then it will be way too late for them," says Olmsted. "But we'll be ready." Mark Andrews, a San Diego doctor, feels so strongly about the impending catastrophe that he has quit his medical practice, moved his family to a farm in a Southwestern state and begun barnstorming the country giving lectures about Y2K preparedness. "I realized I could save more lives getting people to make contingency plans," he says.
Millennium Bug experts are nowhere near forming a consensus on just how bad the consequences of the software glitch will be. Of course, that kind of uncertainty is only helping Y2K-survival businesses boom. Walton Feed, an Idaho-based company that has sold bulk foods for decades, saw sales double in 1997 and expects them to double again this year. Earth-friendly supply company Jade Mountain has been getting 200,000 hits a week on the Web site where it sells composting toilets and solar panels. And discussion of teotwawki is flourishing all over the Internet. One survival Web ring lists 189 home pages with names like DisasterMasters and The Frugal Survivalist. Virginia entrepreneur Cody Varian lists dozens of isolated cabins and sites; the seller of one Georgia trailer boasts that "everyone in the area is self-sufficient and would make good allies." The Y2K industry can also be remarkably specialized. Texas family therapist Karen Anderson, for example, gives lectures on how the millennium bug-out can put a strain on your marriage. The husband may be the one who decides to liquidate the family's stock portfolio, says Anderson, but "a lot of times it's the women in the home who end up filling the storage bottles for water."
Some survivalists are starting to worry that hideaways stocked with bottled water may not be secluded enough. Tod, a gulf-war vet who lives in a Northeastern state, is one of them. "If people start moving out of cities, they could wind up looking around," he says. "I don't want to hear anybody saying, 'Hey, that guy's got food!'" Tod plans to head for a national forest with a rifle and basic survival skills. Californian Susan Conniry and her husband, Tom Beasley, now have long waiting lists for seminars where they teach just those sorts of skills--debris huts, water purification, fire building, the basics. "My fear is that you will perish, not us," she says generously. "We want you to live." Of course, not everyone feels the same way. Last week the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report titled "Y2Kaos," detailing law-enforcement fears that militiamen and other right-wingers are gearing up for confrontation in 2000.
But for the most part, the survivalists posting messages on the Internet and buying freeze-dried apple chips by the pound are a pretty ordinary lot. The Safe Haven folks in Mississippi aren't interested in any such revolutionary nonsense. "We think of ourselves as being in the mainstream of society," says Nate, "not in the mainstream of Y2Kers." It won't be long before we know whether Nate and his buddies were paranoid or merely prepared--57 weeks, to be exact. Ed Yourdon, author of "Time Bomb 2000," isn't advocating that anyone panic (even though he's sold his New York apartment and decamped for New Mexico). If it turns out that survivalists overreacted, says Yourdon, "they'll have a little extra canned food after all of this; they can donate it to a food bank." And they'll have a vacation house, complete with barbed wire and solar-powered washer and dryer.
Watching and Worrying
It's not just folks on the fringes. A recent poll of high-tech-company execs suggests even experts are more than a little scared:
Do you have confidence the millennium bug will be fixed by Dec. 31 1999? Yes 29% No 56% Unsure 15%
Would you fly on a commercial airline on Jan. 1, 2000? Yes 31% No 5O% Unsure 8%
Do you think the U.S. government should create a disaster-recovery fund to deal with Year 2000 emergencies? Yes 54% No 46%
What personal-contingency activities are you planning to engage in?
80% Documenting financial records
13% Upgrading personal security (home alarm systems, firearms, etc.)
11% Stockpiling water
9% Stockpiling canned goods
9% Buying generators, wood stoves
3% Relocating to a non-urban environment
With Andrew Murr, Jamie Reno and T. Trent Gegax