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Did Not Compute

Twenty years later, we look back at the overhyped phenomenon that was Y2K.
Y2 K Rgb

Amidst the mania and confusion that surrounded the night the date changed from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000, Tom Zahorik was quite certain what he wanted to do.

He and his girlfriend, Val Newcomb, were living together in Roland Park at the time. Toward the tail end of the two-and-a-half years they’d been dating, Newcomb says she began to tap her fingers on the counter, wondering when Zahorik would propose.

He knew that he wanted to do so around a big event. So, at Thanksgiving, he conferred with family members to talk strategy. When he brought up the prospect of proposing on New Year’s Eve, he was met with a healthy dose of skepticism: Wasn’t there a chance that, when computer dates across the globe changed from 99 to 00, chaos would ensue?

“I was definitely concerned,” Zahorik says. “What was being kicked around wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.”

But he went on, undeterred. As the family gathered for New Year’s in Newcomb’s sister’s home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which was stocked with plenty of wine and beer and food just in case—like “preparing for a snowstorm,” Newcomb says—and with Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve as the soundtrack, Zahorik got down on one knee and popped the question.

“I remember being on the steps,” Zahorik says. “I was watching the TV out of the corner of my eye, because if there was going to be a blackout, it was going to be there.”

Newcomb said yes, and amidst the excitement of getting engaged, she and Tom looked around to make sure everyone and everything was alright. It’s not every day that the end of days is prophesized on as grand a scale as it was in the months leading up to New Year’s Eve 1999. Twenty years later, one of the 20th century’s most infamous events is also perhaps its most inconsequential.

Or, as the newly engaged Zahorik, who admits he was quite certain that the end was nigh, remembers thinking at the time: “I’m glad the world didn’t end.”

The Y2K problem arose out of a lack of forward thinking. For decades, to save space and characters in code, computer programmers entered two digits into systems to indicate the year. After all, for whatever year they were operating in—and for the many, many to follow—that’s all that was needed.

“Shortcuts were taken in system design which were not quite appropriate,” says University of Maryland computer science professor Ashok Agrawala. But around 1997, it dawned on those who were on the front lines that there was a potential problem. “People were concerned as to how computer systems would react to the digits turning over,” he says.

Effectively, there are a number of basic computer functions that had long been coded around the date at the time. So, the thought was, if there was a date entered that a computer couldn’t identify, it would cause a breakdown across airlines, communication tools, power grids, and myriad other resources.

“I can’t quite compare it to any other kind of thing,” Agrawala says. “This was effectively a global phenomenon.”

It was also one that had to be dealt with on a local level. In the days, months, and years leading up to Y2K, numerous steps were taken in Maryland to prepare for an unknown. A Y2K Ad Hoc Committee was formed at Johns Hopkins University to formulate a strategy surrounding how to best prepare for what lay ahead.

“We discussed the power grid a lot,” says Stephanie Reel, a member of the committee and the current Chief Information Officer for Johns Hopkins University and Health System. “There would be no ability to manage power if there were outages. A lot of planning went into it, and there was a lot of anxiety. It was such a far-reaching problem with a pretty fixed deadline and not any ability for flexibility.”

Reel says that the abstract side of the problem—discerning and cataloguing exactly what within Hopkins’ systems might be affected—was a necessary process that, while rewarding, required a comprehensive effort. It allowed for an audit of different networks in a way that they might not otherwise have done. To them, Y2K was like a light switch, that, once turned on, would reveal just how solid (or vulnerable) their systems actually were.

Essentially, what those at Johns Hopkins—and across city, state, and national governments—were doing was playing the world’s worst waiting game. Either catastrophe would strike at midnight, or it wouldn’t.

At Graul’s Market’s Ruxton location, co-owner Kate Poffenberger made sure that the store had a surplus of batteries and water to sell to customers. They also had extra change on hand—in case banks failed and were unable to process the checks that customers often paid with at that time. Concern about registers working was abated, too, with computerized systems checked and set to adjust accordingly.

In a December 1999 Baltimore Sun editorial entitled “Don’t Panic Over Y2K! Just Do This,” writer Mike Himowitz suggested readers “do the same thing you’d do in case of a blizzard, ice storm, or hurricane. Have plenty of flashlights and batteries available, along with a battery-powered radio or TV.” In the event of a power outage and eventual heat failure, he advised to “make arrangements with a friend or relative in another part of town who can give you a place to stay for a night or two if necessary.”

It’s easy to look back on this quaint advice and color it ripe for parody. But these words of wisdom were not isolated instances, and, though more often than not, cooler minds prevailed, the fear that existed was real, widespread, and not easily discounted.

“The unknown factored into [the sense of unrest] quite a lot,” Agrawala says.

On New Year’s Eve 1999, in what can only be described as lousy luck, then Governor Parris Glendening found himself juggling two crises. In the Pocomoke River, a Pfiesteria piscicida outbreak had been plaguing the area. There were reported fish deaths and health complaints related to fish consumption, and the government was scrambling to contain the problem. Though the problem was concentrated to the Pocomoke River, that didn’t stop people from worrying, and Glendening found himself doing his best to quell concerns.

“That and Y2K were somewhat similar,” Glendening recalls. “But with Y2K, we had years to prepare. I absolutely understand why a number of people were concerned and why there was some degree of near-hysteria at the time. My job as governor in both cases was to calmly and firmly bring people’s attention to what was going on, what the potential for disaster was, and reassure them.”

Though the outbreak predated Y2K, there was still enough popular concern that Glendening spent most of December 31, 1999 visiting crabhouses and seafood restaurants in an attempt to illustrate that Maryland seafood was safe. “That’s what I was doing up until midnight,” he says.

Throughout Baltimore, those in positions of power were preparing for what they hoped would not be a historic night. Mary Beth Marsden, formerly a longtime anchor at WMAR, was on the air on New Year’s Eve 1999. In any other year, senior employees could’ve been off, but on this night, the station was fully staffed in the event that something out of the ordinary happened. They knew that they could be affected, too. “I was concerned about how we would respond to potential chaos,” Marsden remembers. “In the news business, you don’t want to freak people out. At the same time, you can’t ignore it. As reporters, we were on the front lines. Those stories were the reason we were on the air—times like Y2K are where you feel like maybe you’re doing some good.”

Marsden recalls keeping her eye on news reports from Australia and other parts of the world where midnight had come and gone without any issues. It helped assuage concerns, she says.

Elsewhere on the broadcast front, Vic Carter, who has been at WJZ for 30 years, remembers anchoring a New Year’s Eve show from the Inner Harbor. While he and those at the station had a healthy amount of skepticism toward Y2K, Carter was prepared for anything as he broadcast from the roof of the Maryland Science Center.

“I’m not sure we had a huge backup plan in the event something happened,” Carter says. “Doing what I do for a living, it’s like getting into a ride at the carnival or on a roller coaster. You get in and buckle up and go along for the ride. Whatever happens, happens. Y2K was a fun thing to think about, but it didn’t happen.”

Meanwhile at Johns Hopkins, Reel remembers gathering with senior officials in a conference room at the hospital campus. There was a palpable energy in the air, as those who had been principally involved in preparation for the event waited to see what would happen. At the stroke of midnight, a brief moment of panic set in, as one of Reel’s colleagues with a dark sense of humor turned off the lights in the conference room.

“Nobody breathed for a minute,” Reel says. “It was comic relief—we needed it. We sat in that room with computers hooked up to go into every system to make sure it was running. It was a very odd feeling when things went fine—almost like an adrenaline withdrawal.”

Twenty years later, Y2K isn’t much more than a blip on the radar of those who lived through it. For all the hysteria, stocking of groceries, and apocalyptic discourse, it amounted to a whole lot of nothing. There were small glitches, but nothing came close to what was foretold.

Whether that was a result of years of planning or simply something wildly overblown is debatable. But for all the news coverage, preemptive measures, and promise that New Year’s Eve 1999 brought, the fact remains that what was once going to be a seminal moment in human history simply wasn’t. Though, in Tom Zahorik’s case, it was a seminal moment, one that brought with it a sense of relief, eventual marital bliss, and, he admits with a laugh, a pretty nifty mnemonic device.

“It makes it easier to count my anniversary.”