US Report: Armegeddon in 528 days?

Fears the Year 2000 computer bug could black out power plants and turn cities into war zones have numerous Americans stockpiling food and water, buying guns and ammunition and heading for the hills.

Forget giant meteors slamming into earth. These Year 2000, or "Y2K," alarmists say Armageddon could come with a worldwide computer crash they believe is just 528 days away.

On January 1, 2000, while others nurse post-millennial hangovers, Y2K safe-haven seekers will be at home, in rural cabins or in mountain communities, waiting for power and water systems to fail and hungry hordes to swarm out of cities. "I would not allow my family to be in New York City for millennium weekend," said computer consultant Ed Yourdon, who recently sold his apartment in the Big Apple and moved his family to the mountain town of Taos, N.M. "I expect New York to resemble Beirut if even a subset of the Y2K infrastructure problems actually materialise," he said.

For years, computer programmers, in a move to save space, used only two digits to record year dates, as in "99" instead of "1999." Their shortcut has the potential to confuse computers and "embedded" microchips in millions of machines that would read "00" as the year 1900 instead of 2000.

Yourdon, a guru of the Y2K safe-haven movement, expects people to die of hypothermia and starvation and be killed in civil unrest as the computer bug causes industrial shutdowns, a stock market crash and food riots. The initial chaos could last weeks or months, followed by a 1929-style depression, he says. Yourdon estimates around 100,000 people in the United States are now preparing for these catastrophic events.

Preparations range from storing water in old soda bottles to getting together with neighbors and family to form a local militia. Internet Web sites pitch one-year emergency rations at around $750 a pop, Y2K survival domes for $7,000 and prime Y2K real estate in the middle of nowhere. Economist Gary North has put together thousands of Y2K-related documents on his Web site. He recently moved to rural Arkansas to avoid what he thinks "could be the biggest problem that the modern world has ever faced."

On the fringes of the movement are groups like the "Home Defense Forces." These self-styled defense groups say they will fight looters and mobs in the suburbs and on the golf courses. "The people firing the weapons will not be the Rambo wannabes, but people like you who have no alternative to taking up arms in defense of your family and your own life and property," blares the Home Defense Forces Web site.

He and his wife are building a Y2K Christian community in the Ozark Mountains near Huntsville, Ark. They are leaving Southern California out of fear that power outages will plunge the region into anarchy. "I look at it as Judgment Day," says Rutz, who eventually hopes to have around 100 families in the community known as Prayer Lake. "Instead of putting up the barricades and piling up the bodies, we've got to minister to those hurting people coming down the road," says Rutz, 66, an engineer and entrepreneur.

Not everyone can pull up stakes and move to the country. Many safe-haven seekers will be at home on December 31, 1999.

Through her Web site, Karen Anderson advises women on how to handle the Y2K crunch from their own backyards. A marriage and family therapist by trade, she lives in Colleyville, Texas, a bedroom community between Dallas and Fort Worth. Among her tips are: Keep some Kool-Aid to make stored water more palatable for the kids, get to know the neighbors before you need to know them and learn how to defend yourself.

"Guns can be an excellent choice," says Anderson.

Critics say that, like Malthus' famine prediction of 1798 and forecasts of oil and gas shortages in the 1970s, the Year 2000 scare is just another panic that the sky is falling. They say government agencies and companies have had time to ensure that vital computer systems are ready for the date change.

"We will muddle through. This is not the end of civilisation," says Paul Saffo, a high-tech futurist at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif.

John Petersen, president of the Arlington Institute, an Arlington based think tank that works on future issues, says peoples' views of Y2K ultimately depend on how much faith they have in humanity. "If you don't have much faith, then you better move to Taos, N.M.," he says.

The problem with playing down the issue is that time is running out, says Tony Keyes, a financial analyst with his own Y2K radio show. "We know how to fix the Y2K bug ... we just don't have enough time," he says. Keyes, of Olney, Md., his wife, and three children plan to see in the new millennium in their cabin in the mountains of West Virginia. They have enough provisions for three months. Every now and then he says he asks himself if what he is doing and what he is thinking isn't a bit crazy.

But then he thinks again.

"I'm not going to let the implausibility of something stand in the way of my preparing for it."