City folk worried about Y2K bug head for the hills in Virginia

Associated Press/May 22, 1999

Floyd, Va. -- John Hammell believes Miami will be a dangerous place to live if the Year 2000 computer bug plunges civilization into chaos.

So the big-city political consultant and sailor has headed for the hills of Floyd County, where he is learning to live off the land.

Careful preparation kept Hammell alive through numerous hurricanes and storms at sea. Now, with the 21st century about to arrive, he is stockpiling food, water and chopped wood and lighting his spartan trailer with kerosene lamps. He is getting organic vegetables from a community garden and planning to buy solar panels and a woodstove he can cook on.

"I wanted to be in a place that had a history of self-sufficiency, where my neighbors are prepared and not panicking," said Hammell, who is 41 and single.

Dozens of Y2K refugees have moved to Floyd County, a sparsely populated area of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 230 miles southwest of Richmond that has welcomed social dropouts for generations, including the hippies of the '60s and the New Agers of the '90s.

The land is fertile and cheap, taxes and crime are low, and the water is abundant and unpolluted because Floyd County has the highest mean elevation in Virginia. But it's the attitude more than the altitude that compelled the likes of Hammell to join the 13,200 residents of Floyd County.

"A lot of people who come here are interested in getting out of the system and trying to become self-sustaining," said Bill Truitt, who raises chickens and eats what he grows in a greenhouse and organic garden.

There are at least a dozen small communes where people share the work and earnings. Most of the communes grow their own food and are not connected to the commercial electrical system, Truitt said. There is also an established barter system for obtaining necessities.

Truitt, 68, moved in before the Y2K scare but has since become the county's point man for the Cassandra Project, a nationwide grassroots clearinghouse for Y2K preparedness. In Greek mythology, Cassandra had the gift of prophecy, but her warnings of misfortune were always disbelieved.

The Year 2000 problem stems from computer programs that use only two digits to designate the year. A two-digit program recognizes 99 as 1999. Some experts fear that when 2000 arrives, computers will think it is 1900, causing power systems and communications to fail.

"I don't think the event is going to be apocalyptic, but there will be greater disruptions than the government would lead us to believe," Truitt said. "The government is hoping to avoid panic."

Around the country, some people are preparing for the worst, moving out to the countryside to simplify their lives. The largest concentration of refugees in Virginia is in Floyd County.

Bill Nye, a Hollins University sociology professor who lives in Floyd County, said the tradition of finding sanctuary in these hills goes way back. During the Civil War, deserters came to Floyd County, he said.

"There seems to be an attractive attitude here as opposed to a rural area like Franklin County, which is less tolerant to divergent lifestyles," Nye said. "Franklin County is known for its moonshine. Floyd County is known for its pot growing, if that tells you anything."

Some 1960s arrivals were lured by advertisements in Mother Earth News, others by the psychic visions of Edgar Cayce, who said Floyd County would be one of the few safe places in the event of nuclear war. Now it's the Internet that is drawing people.

Computer programmer Ken Griffith bought 437 acres in Floyd County and advertised on the Internet that he is establishing a self-sustaining community called Rivendell for people who believe in home-schooling their children and need a safe port during the Y2K storm. Rivendell takes its name from the refuge and learning center in J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings."

Hair salon owner Carl Mandell of Toledo, Ohio, is building a solar-heated home in Rivendell, where about 20 of the 28 lots have been sold.

"I pray that we're wrong, but this thing has the potential to really disrupt our civilization," said Mandell, 52.

If nothing else, the Y2K scare has been good for business in Floyd, a one-stoplight county seat with an old-fashioned farmer's supply store around the corner from a health food emporium. Business is booming at both stores, where clerks scramble to keep up with bulk orders for such survival items as Mason jars, canning equipment, hand grinders, rice and grain.

"I just got off the phone with a woman who wanted to know when we would have more wood cook stoves and kerosene lamps," said Derek Weeks, a hardware store clerk. "I asked why, and she just said, 'Y2K."'

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