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Companies and Consumers Y2K Ready--or Not

TIMES STAFF WRITER

And on the last day, the only thing left to do is wait.

Uncertain whether the 2000 rollover will usher in technological devastation, terror in the streets or neither, consumers, corporations and the government took last-minute precautions Thursday to guard against the unknown and watched as the hours wound down.

Federal technicians worked to fix an air traffic control system glitch just discovered. Major corporations stood with computer SWAT teams at the ready to respond to disruptions. Shoppers raced to stock up on supplies from toilet paper to 9mm bullets, but didn’t hoard products as some had feared.

At Jim Seyegh’s Chevron station in Glassell Park, motorists showed up early Thursday and reached for the gas pumps.

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“We’ve had lines since the morning. It’s nonstop,” Seyegh said, adding that customers also are picking up bottles of water at the station’s convenience store. “I’ve seen a lot of holidays, but I’ve never seen so much business. People are in a good mood, but they’re a little worried about what’s going to happen.”

Merchants reported consumers were buying up batteries, bottled water, lanterns, propane and camping gear to ensure they would be prepared in the event of disaster.

And at King’s Gun Works in Glendale, a salesman noted ammunition sales had more than doubled in the last week. Also on the rise, he said, were sales of “personal defense” shotguns.

“Nobody thinks anything’s going to happen,” he said, “but you never know.”

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A handful of computer glitches had surfaced already around the world by Thursday. In Nigeria, thousands of customers lost service after the state-run telephone company disconnected private carriers whose systems it said were not compliant. And in Britain, a credit card processing system reading days ahead failed to process transactions.

But in the U.S., the major corporations and government agencies that form the backbone of the nation’s communications and transportation system pronounced themselves ready.

Computer specialists at IBM admitted to being a teensy bit anxious over the calendar change, and one executive likened their mood to the one felt when the company’s technology powered the Olympic games in Atlanta.

“We’re not exactly holding our breath,” said Flor Estevez, a company spokeswoman for Y2K issues in Miami. “Those people who need to be on alert are, but it’s actually pretty quiet.”

Phone companies reiterated that their networks are ready for the new year, although companies ranging from AT&T; to Pacific Bell to GTE all plan to have extra employees around to monitor the action.

Chief among the phone companies’ concerns is that too many people will try to make phone calls at the same time--a non-Y2K-related situation that would overload the network and cause some calls not to go through.

“I can’t think of another event that would tempt people to all pick up the phone just to see if there is a dial tone--all at the same time,” said Jason Hillery, a spokesman for SBC Communications, the San Antonio-based parent of Pacific Bell. “It’s really an unprecedented situation for the telephone network.”

Jammed or out-of-commission phone lines also pose a potential problem for some banks, whose automated teller machines in remote areas are sometimes wired via standard phone lines. Most ATMs in California operate on dedicated data lines.

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California Federal Bank is the only large California institution that plans to open some of its branches Jan. 1 in an effort to alleviate potential customer concerns.

Several banks noted slight increases in cash withdrawals over the last week or 10 days, but nothing approaching an all-out run. Wells Fargo, for example, said withdrawals at its branches and ATMs nationwide were up about 11% between Dec. 20 and Dec. 29 compared with last year.

Of course, if the rollover does result in major service problems, armies of corporate attorneys are standing by to advise their clients how to respond.

The companies “want to be prudent about what they say. They don’t want to say something like, ‘Gee, we made a big mistake,’ ” said attorney Tim Biddle, a partner at the law firm Crowell & Moring.

In Washington, John Koskinen, the head of President Clinton’s Council on Year 2000 Conversion, stressed he is confident the nation will make the transition to the new year “with relatively minor hiccups or glitches along the way.”

Still, many agencies were taking precautions.

Most of the Agriculture Department’s Web sites were taken down at noon Thursday to guard against computer hackers and virus writers, officials said. And the Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday it had to make a last-minute Y2K fix in a basic traffic system after technicians discovered a glitch that might have showed air controllers 10-second-old aircraft positions.

Most U.S. airline carriers have cut their flying schedules by between 15% and 35% for the next 48 hours, owing to a sharp decline in demand for tickets. Other transportation sectors plan to pause at midnight to check their computer systems. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, along with Amtrak, the nation’s freight railroads and East Coast transit systems plan to suspend service briefly over the midnight rollover period.

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Shortly before midnight, the 49 Amtrak trains that are operating will stop in stations as briefly as possible--a few minutes up to two hours, according to John Wolf, an Amtrak spokesman.

Hospitals say they are ready and are less concerned about internal computer glitches than they are about possible disasters outside their walls. Fearing an onslaught of emergency room patients as a result of millennial revelry, all of the acute-care hospitals in the state have agreed to share information.

Meanwhile, Y2K experts at El Segundo-based Computer Sciences Corp., an information systems firm, were calm, with no “last-minute prep work” left to do, said company spokesman Frank Pollare.

“We are confident that what we have put into place will provide us the resources to deal with any [Y2K] situation,” Pollare said. But that doesn’t mean that CSC employees are anxious to put their handiwork to the test, he said. “I wouldn’t say we’re looking forward to any problems that might arise.”

Times staff writers Hector Becerra, Sharon Bernstein, Elizabeth Douglass, Karen Kaplan, James Peltz, Jeffrey Rabin, Nancy Rivera Brooks, Edmund Sanders, Elizabeth Shogren and Times wire services contributed to this report.

HOLIDAY CLOSURES

A list of services, businesses and government agencies affected by New Year’s closures. B1

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NOT EXACTLY ANXIOUS

Retailers and other businesses are confident but preparing for backup just in case. C3.


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