Twenty years ago, as people were ringing in a new millennium, some were also preparing for a disaster dubbed Y2K: People feared turning over to the year 2000 might cause computers to crash worldwide. That’s because many computer programs allowed only two digits for the year (i.e., 99 instead of 1999). In other words, it was unclear what would happen once we entered a new millennium. Some people were prepared for apocalyptic outcomes if computers did end up crashing.
Obviously, the world didn’t end. Although Y2K is largely remembered as a joke, concerned experts were responsible for ensuring that various utilities and industries would be ready. And, as a recent Washington Post article points out, there were hundreds of Y2K-related incidents anyways: problems at nuclear power plants, delays in Medicare payments, ATM issues worldwide.
As we enter a new decade, 20 years after Y2K, we asked women about their memories of Dec. 31, 1999.
“The fear of a global computer crash was very real, due to year dates in computers having been coded with two instead of four digits. I totally believed it could happen. I had boxes of canned food stacked up in my living room along with cases of bottled water. I stocked up on an array of battery-operated lights, a chemical toilet, plenty of cash, sleeping bags, a battery-operated emergency radio, a full tank of gas and camping gear. My house looked like an REI outpost. On New Year’s Eve, I sat with trepidation and watched Sydney, Australia, welcome the millennium 12-plus hours before the U.S. East Coast. The lights stayed on, there were no catastrophic interruptions, the television stations kept broadcasting. I looked over, somewhat sheepishly, at my pyramid of emergency supplies. The first week of the new century saw the local food bank receive a windfall of canned food as I cleaned out my emergency rations, and reflected on my somewhat extreme over-reaction. The silver lining: I learned how to prepare for emergencies, and this stood me in good stead when Superstorm Sandy created a very Y2K-like situation in New Jersey a dozen years later. My friends have said that if there is an emergency, they are coming to my house, and indeed they do.”
“I was 12, in the seventh grade, a terrible time in life. I remember the confusion and the inconsistencies in what people were saying would or wouldn’t happen. It was all about the computers, how they couldn’t turn from 1999 to 2000 and would instead turn back to 1900, and somehow that would send everything out of whack. Or everything would be fine, because computers were smart machines made by even smarter people. The biggest threat to a seventh-grader about Y2K was the possible loss of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM).
The thing I remember most is that my parents used it as an excuse to keep me home from a party. My ‘boy-crazy friend’ (as they called her), a girl I knew they didn’t like, was having a (supervised) co-ed New Year’s Eve party. My dad said he didn’t want me to go to the party ‘in case something happens.’ Hard to fight that one, even though I saw right through it. So, I stayed home. At some point before midnight, I fell asleep in the living room, and then I was woken up just after the ball dropped to a phone call — it was my friends from the party calling to say Happy New Year.
Nothing had happened, and I think deep down, most of us didn’t think anything would, but you still breathed a little sigh of relief.”
“I was expecting a baby in December 1999, and I ended up having a home birth to avoid being in the hospital when the clocks turned over.”
“One of the major concerns of Y2K was that when the computers crashed at midnight, planes would no longer be able to fly. In the high hopes that this would prove to be true, we booked a week-long vacation on Hawaii’s Big Island. What an awesome place to get ‘stuck’ for a few extra days, or weeks, with the perfect excuse for why you’re not at work (back in cold and snowy Michigan). Apparently, most folks feared getting stuck in Hawaii, and the resort, and the island, were practically empty. The pool, the beaches, the nature areas — all were our own personal spaces for use. The only negative was having to leave as scheduled on Jan. 3, 2000.”
“As a reporter for the Associated Press in the Wisconsin state Capitol, it was my job to write about how other people were preparing for the year 2000. In the weeks and days leading up to the New Year, we combed our phone lists to reach out and find out how state officials were getting ready for the worst — avoiding long email attachments and making plans to take some computers offline at midnight on Jan. 1. We reported on people buying flashlights, candles, lamp oil, batteries and water to get ready and others filling their gas tanks and withdrawing extra cash from ATMs just to be safe. At the age of 25, my biggest preparation was mental: I had to give up any hope of fun plans (this was back when I thought going out on New Year’s Eve was a good idea) to spend the entirety of Dec. 31, 1999, reporting on events of the day. As a thank you for staying on the clock, the AP gave us a crisp hundred-dollar bill. The governor at the time (future Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson) believed the biggest potential problem connected to Y2K would be undue panic, so he decided to throw a party in the state Capitol Rotunda, so people in black tie and sequins filled the building for drinks, hors d’oeuvres and dancing. The memory I most associate with that day and night is watching Thompson lead a joyful conga line before I walked outside to see fireworks fill the sky just after midnight while stone-cold sober. It’s easily the most memorable New Year’s Eve I’ve had.”
“I was only 9 then, but I remember all the adults freaking out about Y2K. Everyone was saying it was the end of the world. On Dec. 31, 1999, I vividly remember being in the drive-through of a Burger King, and the power went out. I thought it was the start of a blackout and the world was ending. Obviously, the lights came back on and everything was okay, but it was terrifying for my young mind.”
“Earlier this year, my husband was having cancer treatments at a huge Toronto hospital. We’d spend plenty of time in large waiting rooms, and then get moved into a smaller room to wait longer to see the doctor. There was an examining table and some other furniture, and a swing-arm lamp. And there were colorful logo Y2K stickers on each piece. In 2019, we were looking at stickers that had been placed on the items in 1999, and the stickers hadn’t been removed in 20 years! Imagine the work it took to test and sticker every item in a city block-sized hospital, just in case something went wrong in 2000. We had to laugh — laughter is much needed during cancer treatments — and wonder if we should leave the stickers for another 20 years or pass the time peeling them off. We left them.”
“My next door neighbors were very unusual people, and they invited me to play the lead role in a neighborhood play in the park to explore fears about Y2K. My qualifications were that I was in a rock band and so not afraid to be onstage. We rehearsed a lot with different neighbors, including a 10-year-old girl and several older folks. In the play, I woke up and no appliances worked, so I wandered outside and met a series of kooks and crazies looking to loot or start a new world. In the end, it turns out it was all just nothing and everything is back to normal. It was an odd play, supposed to be funny.
We went door-to-door all along our street to deliver invitations. When the day came for the play, about 20-plus folks showed and several of our actors changed their minds, so we winged it, reading from the script. It was painful how no one laughed at the jokes, but we got through it. Even though I think people thought it was strange, it did accomplish one goal: A lot of neighbors met each other. As we unwittingly were launching into a new era of isolation and animosity, this was a good thing, one I continue to work on even though my next door neighbors moved away years ago. I still know and care about a lot of my neighbors on my street.”
“I lived in Sedona, Ariz., at the time, and joined the Y2K task force. Before moving to Arizona, I lived in the Bay Area and started a business to help prepare individuals, neighborhoods and corporations for the next major quake after the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Since I was so knowledgeable on disaster preparedness, the Sedona Task Force encouraged me to write a book for Y2K.
The book, appropriately named ‘Y2K Emergency Preparedness Handbook,’ gave people instructions on what to do in case of infrastructure failures and taught them to prepare rather than panic.
The small handbook can still be found on Amazon.”
“I was working at the local power company, auditing our preparations for the dreaded Y2K. In October I went for my annual mammogram. At that point, I started preparing for something entirely different.”