Thursday, May 27, 1999

Senator Bob Bennett
Senator Chris Dodd
Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem
U.S. Senate
SD-B40, Suite 3
Washington D.C. 20510

Written Testimony for the Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem
From David Sunfellow
Founder & President, NewHeavenNewEarth
Director, The Sedona Y2K Task Force

 

Dear Senators Bennett and Dodd, and other committee members,

My name is David Sunfellow. I am the Director of the Sedona Y2K Task Force and President of NewHeavenNewEarth (NHNE), a nonprofit, Internet-based organization. Part of our mission is to create a worldwide network of people who can help our planet make a safe passage through the turbulent times in which we live. We are one of the oldest, largest, and most well-respected organizations of our kind. We presently reach 2,400 people, worldwide, via the Internet, and publish a wide variety of online publications. Our Y2K reports are distributed to a growing number of task forces nationwide, as well as internationally, and NHNE's Y2K Action Network has helped many of our readers prepare themselves and their communities for potential disruptions. We also reach a large number of people who do not have direct access to the Internet through family members, grassroots organizers, and news organizations who widely distribute the material we publish. In addition, we maintain five websites that generate thousands of legitimate hits monthly. Four of these five websites deal exclusively with Y2K.

The Sedona Y2K Task Force was formed in August of 1998 (http://www.wild2k.com/sedona/). While the Sedona Y2K Task Force was established as a separate organization from NHNE, it was founded and directed by myself, and has operated under the nonprofit umbrella of NHNE. NHNE has also provided the primary resources and funding needed for the task force to operate. With NHNE's online connections and news and information resources, the local task force developed materials and organized meetings to educate our local community about Y2K, brought in well-known Y2K speakers from other parts of the country, helped our city and public library present Y2K panel discussions, created and distributed neighborhood preparedness packets, formed several exploration teams to find out how Sedona would be affected by potential Y2K disturbances, acquired office space to meet and work in, visited other communities and city governments in our area to help them mobilize their communities, and helped organize the nation's first state-wide gathering of Y2K grassroots preparedness groups in Arizona (http://www.wild2k.com/sedona/flyer7.html).

After the state-wide gathering, which took place in February of 1999 in Camp Verde, Arizona, everything we had done began to unravel. We received word that the office space we had been using, which had been graciously donated to us by a local realtor, was about to be rented. Prior to losing our office space, we had also been losing people and energy. Some of our steering committee members had resigned, office volunteers were having difficulty covering their office shifts for various reasons, our local teams were floundering because we didn't have enough people to provide constant leadership, and the calls to our office had begun to taper off. In addition, funding for our local efforts, which had always been tenuous, became critical and many of us, including myself, could no longer continue to volunteer so much of time without compensation.

At the same time, Y2K was becoming an increasingly mainstream story -- and the news that was being reported was that Y2K was real, but under control. Simply put, there was no need to prepare for any kind of serious, widespread disruptions. At most, we were looking at mild winter storm conditions and everyone could prepare for that by having a couple extra days worth of food and water on hand. The need for grassroots organizations and efforts was, in other words, unnecessary.

Significantly, we learned what was happening in Sedona, was also happening with other grassroots organizations. As if a giant magic wand had been waved all over the land, grassroots efforts, which had been slowly gaining ground, now appeared to be in retreat. So, too, were many of the people who headed these organizations. Often, these organizers were suffering from burnout and/or being increasingly dismissed as fear mongers, doomsayers, and troublemakers.

On Tuesday, May 4th, 1999, Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute circulated an article that he and Rosa Zubizarreta, co-founder of the Oakland 2001 Y2K Task Force, had written. After reading the article, which consisted of an upbeat summary of various Y2K efforts around the country, I wrote Tom saying that the efforts of our local task force, and the efforts of many other grassroots organizations I had heard from, were having a much more difficult time motivating their local communities than the groups Tom and Rosa had written about. I wondered how current the information was in Tom and Rosa's article (Tom indicated the article had been written a month earlier) and suggested that it might be a good idea to poll groups to find out how, exactly, their efforts were going. Tom agreed and drafted a survey. The first draft was shared with several key Y2K organizers for feedback, and then the survey was sent out to numerous online Y2K mailing lists. To house the data collected from this survey, a special website was created that can be found at the following location:

THE NATION'S FIRST
Y2K GRASSROOTS COMMUNITY PREPAREDNESS SURVEY:
http://www.nhne.com/y2kgrassrootssurvey/index.html

The Y2K Grassroots Community Preparedness Survey took place over the course of 11 days -- from May 8th to May 19th. It was conducted exclusively online with two primary goals:

1. To give grassroot organizers a clear idea what was happening around the country on the level of individual and community preparedness;

2. To share this information with John Koskinen, Senator Bennett, and other influential leaders.

Once we learned that Senator Bennett's Year 2000 Subcommittee was holding a special hearing on individual and community preparedness on May 25th, we set May 20th as our target date, which was when Tania Calhoun requested that all written testimonies be completed. Because of this self-imposed deadline, we did not have time to contact all of the grassroots organizations that are presently using the Internet to further their work.

After the survey questions were formulated, they were sent to a handful of influential Y2K organizers and posted to Tom Atlee and my mailing lists. Tom's list presently reaches about 500 people, while my our lists reach about 2400 people. The survey questions were then picked up by several smaller grassroots Y2K mailing lists -- in New York, Vermont, California, Washington State, Washington D.C., Texas and elsewhere -- and circulated among their members. Combined, these lists reached at least 700 more people, or about 3600 people total.

100 people -- from 29 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, and Australia -- responded. Their answers form the basis of this survey.

77 of these people allowed us to post their names, addresses, and comments publicly, while the remaining 23 asked for us to keep their names and addresses private.

Since this survey consists of feedback from people who are actively seeking to inform and mobilize their local communities, it contains a wealth of difficult to acquire, "in-the-trenches" information concerning how grassroots efforts are unfolding all over the nation. It describes how efforts are going in various regions of the country, offers lessons learned and practical suggestions for organizing other parts of the country, and contains the most current, comprehensive database of Y2K organizers presently available (names, email addresses, website address, phone and fax numbers, and mailing addresses).

While this survey contains information concerning a wide variety of topics, several main themes emerge:

-- Most grassroot organizers report that efforts to organize their local community are becoming increasingly difficult, that public interest in Y2K preparations have declined (several organizers mention March as a turning point -- this is when local interest in Y2K began to plummet), and very little progress has been made with city governments since January.

-- On the other hand, a significant number of organizers feel their efforts are bearing fruit -- especially on the level of working with city governments. Many report that strong alliances have been formed between grassroots organizations and city governments and that significant progress is made being because of this cooperation.

-- Whether their efforts are bearing fruit or not, nearly all grassroots organizers lament the way the federal government and corporate leaders are handling Y2K. Again and again, they say that grassroots efforts, all over the country, are suffering -- and in many cases, being seriously threatened -- by the "don't worry, we'll have everything fixed" refrain coming from government and corporate circles. Comparing potential Y2K disruptions to a mild winter storm, has also made it extremely difficult to mobilize community-wide responses to potential Y2K failures. Most organizers believe this analogy is false, misleading, and creating a dangerous sense of complacency in the public at large which, in turn, is making their job extremely difficult.

-- Many organizers are expecting a major resurgence of interest in Y2K as July, October, and December approach and the public at large begins to realize how serious the situation is. These organizers are concerned that there will not be enough time or resources to effectively deal with this last minute, possibly panic-driven resurgence of interest. They want to see all levels of society prepare now, while there is still time, and urge government agencies, corporations, and news organizations to be more honest and forthright in their reporting.

-- Finally, many Y2K organizers view Y2K as one of a growing number of threats to our current way of life. They believe communities need to be more "resilient" to meet whatever happens. By this they mean that solutions should be community-oriented, self-sufficient, earth-friendly, decentralized, and involve all sectors of each community in real dialogue -- both for the short term through Y2K, and for the long-term into the next millennium. Simple top-down or technological solutions may not be capable of handling the complexity and unpredictability of problems like Y2K.

Most of the people who responded to this survey identified themselves as "community organizers" -- people who are actively engaged in the day-to-day activity of informing and mobilizing their local communities. In addition, at least 19 of these respondents are the directors of their local task forces and many serve as public speakers, webmasters, business people and journalists.

While many survey respondents described efforts in their local communities, offered advice, and talked about other issues important to them, most (55 organizers) loudly lamented the way the federal government has been handling Y2K. As mentioned above, these organizers believed the government's handling of Y2K was not only misleading the American public, but could lead to serious, widespread, and dire consequences if not immediately addressed.

Based on my experience as a grassroots organizer, investigative journalist, and the president of an Internet-based nonprofit organization that is now focused almost exclusively on Y2K, I agree with the sentiments of these organizers: as long as the federal government continues to tell the general public that there is little or nothing to be concerned about, nationwide preparations, on the level of ordinary American citizens, will not happen. And since America, in the final analysis, rests upon the individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities that make it up, our nation could be in serious trouble if Y2K causes widespread disruptions.

I would also note that while government agencies and corporations are spending billions of dollars on their Y2K efforts, the funding of community preparedness efforts -- locally, nationally and internationally -- has been largely ignored. If money is any judge of where our priorities are, then we appear to be overlooking the most critical component of our nation's infrastructure: the people who make it up.

I hope Y2K turns out to be the bump in the road so many government officials say it will be. I also hope the government has enough wisdom to know such predictions could be wrong -- and if they are wrong, the only thing that will spare us unnecessary suffering, is a nation that is prepared, on all levels, for the worst.

Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts on this important topic. And thank you, too, for the important work your committee is doing. I will end my testimony with a few comments from local organizers that participated in the survey that echo the themes I have discussed above. The attached Appendix contains a statistical breakdown of survey responses, as well as a complete list of comments that were directed to Y2K Czar John Koskinen, national Y2K organizers and/or other local Y2K groups.

Sincerely,
David Sunfellow
Founder & President, NewHeavenNewEarth
Director, The Sedona Y2K Task Force

 

COMMENTS FROM SURVEY RESPONDENTS:

 

"The government and major industry leaders have done a remarkable job in calming the public about the potential risks associated with Y2K to the point that there seems a disregard for the need for any preparation. The message comes across as: NO disruptions, NO worries, NO need. Could this possibly be a case of oversell? I see a considerable drop in interest in preparing contingency plans among citizens, businesses, and even the city and county emergency response agencies. Please be aware that the message is being received as ALL CLEAR. My concern is that in our haste to avoid panic, we have instead induced a SOMA-like state of complacency. Danger exists with either extreme, let us not substitute one overreaction with another."

--- Ronald Cornish, Flagstaff, Arizona, Northern Arizona Y2K ARRC Group

 

"The lack of public interest in Y2K is distressing to our task force. We hold public meetings and very few people come. One task force member calls this 'the Y2K malaise.' Spokane's emergency services director said trying to get people interested is like 'pushing a string.' We urge the nation's leaders to step forward, put a voice to the risks we are facing, and suggest that people make reasonable preparations. Without national leadership or an actual crisis, people will keep sleeping. At the community level, we're finding it is impossible to take the steps we could take right now to minimize potential suffering. The fear among leaders of causing panic might very well end up costing lives. I'm afraid this time next year millions of people will be asking, 'Why didn't our leaders tell us about this!?'"

--- Judy Laddon, Spokane, Washington, Spokane City/County Y2K Task Force

 

"The effort to reassure the public and prevent 'panic' has reduced the public's interest in preparing further for Y2K. This presents a major problem for all community organizing efforts, and is likely to create a situation in the fall when many people suddenly decide that they had better 'do something' and the items they would like to purchase may become difficult or impossible to find. Then, the government will really start to feel the heat.

"The more we can do to encourage people to prepare now, the better. Panic is an illusion that haunts the minds of planners and managers, but rarely happens, according to a Red Cross study of 300 disasters. So let us provide people with good information, and stop telling people there is 'no problem,' when in fact anyone in authority cannot make such a statement with any degree of certainty, due to the complexity and interconnectedness of worldwide systems."

--- Gordon Davidson, Washington, D.C., Y2K Community Solutions Washington D.C. Metro

 

"Our community will currently not come close to being prepared. At best, a small percentage of people will be prepared for 3-7 days. Low-income, disabled, elderly and most others will not be prepared at all. Our local governments have focused on getting their own computers and systems to work. They have done almost nothing to look after the citizens. This could conceivably change, but not while the federal government tells the public, and our local governments, that there is nothing to worry about."

--- Mick Winter, Napa, California, Chariman Napa Valley Citizens for Year 2000 Preparedness

 

"The three-day FEMA recommendation is nonsense, since most people have three days worth of food and water in their pantries anyway. A more cautious and effective amount would be 6-10 weeks, given the number of natural disasters that we can expect in this area, regardless of Y2K."

--- Sherry J. Stultz, Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Director Ocean Springs Y2K Task Force

 

"The overwhelming tone of media coverage and communication from public officials has been, 'Don't worry, everything will be OK.' People are going to sleep! The attitude of withholding information for fear of 'creating panic' reveals a condescending, paternalistic attitude. Treat us like adults, for heaven's sake! We, the public, responsibly deal with all sorts of challenges daily in our jobs and families. We can respond constructively when we know the facts! A very valuable resource is being wasted as a result of the lack of leadership about Y2K awareness and preparation, and the all-too-sunny media coverage, namely, the widespread volunteer effort to organize positive community responses to Y2K. We're trying to help you -- why are you and the Administration making our job so difficult? If people tune out and we run out of steam because no one is in the bully pulpit legitimizing our efforts, where is the antidote to the 'panic' you so fear going to come from?"

--- Mary Anderson, Seattle (Seattle Area & The Puget Sound), Washington, Puget Sound Community Self Reliance Cooperative

 

"The local citizen is NOT being given any publicity or information as to Y2K compliancy status/contingency planning unless they come to a meeting -- and turn-out for this is almost zero. There needs to be a strong clear public-relations blitz that people need to have personal responsibility to prepare their OWN HOME for Y2K. This way emergency services won't be strained. THE INFO NEEDS TO BE OFFICIAL -- like Red Cross on TV -- people IGNORE grassroot groups aiming for public awareness: IF THE MAYOR DON'T SAY IT, IT AIN'T REAL. People who don't have computers think they won't be affected! They think their lives CANNOT be changed by something abstract and 'overseas,' or some authority 'will take care of it.' They blame the government, yet they expect the government to handle it!

"P.S. We just held a county-wide Chamber of Commerce meeting -- with official invitations from the County Tourism , faxes to all colleges, civic groups, newspaper notices -- and only ONE person came -- TOTALLY DISMAL! Business leaders are not even interested!"

--- Janet Weber, Rockland County, New York, Rockland County Y2K Citizens Readiness Group

 

"I think that all of the official concern about panic has served as a disincentive to people who want to be practical but not perceived as 'too far out there' or contributing in any way to a climate of fear. I know I struggle with this myself: how do I balance telling people to stock food, and yet, still stay as engaged as possible in whatever economy exists after the toll of the bell? How do I counteract, in practical ways, the accusations of inciting panic and contributing to a social meltdown? It's a dilemma."

--- Stephanie Jo Kent, Halifax, Vermont, Halifax Vermont Y2K Preparedness Committee

 

 

The Appendix to this letter contained the statistical information found on the Home Page of this website, and the comments posted in the "Reader Comments" section of this website.