In the Spotlight

News & Features
Profiting from the Y2K Panic
By Leif Enger
December 28,1998
Click for audio RealAudio

Next year is likely to be huge one for those in the "preparedness" business. We're not talking about the Boy Scouts here. We're talking about Y2K, the so-called "millennium bug" that may disable some computer systems at the last tick of 1999. Americans by the millions are buying books and hitting websites warning about the effects of Y2K. Some predict famine, some war, some only inconvenience - but many in the warning business are also in the sales business.

LARRY WANNABO'S BEEN SHOPPING around for the tastiest MRE - those are "Meals Ready to Eat," like the soldiers had during the Gulf War. MRE's come sealed in plastic, cost seven bucks apiece - less by the case - and stay good on a basement shelf for years. Wannabo says some MREs, like this one featuring Cheese Tortellini, aren't bad.

Wannabo: That's your entree. This is a packet of strawberry jam. This is the cracker. There's a great little bottle of Tobacco sauce. This is the chocolate cookie, and since we've got coffee on the table, we could actually sample this. It's really quite good!
Wannabo lives on a small farm 30 miles north of Brainerd. Goateed, good-natured, and focused, he began researching the possible consequences of Y2K last summer. His conclusion: probably not the end of the world forecast by some Internet prophets. But definately worth getting ready for.
Wannabo: We did decide there are some small preparations that a prudent person could make, without a great deal of investment and without devoting your whole life to it. So things like food, shelter, clothing, water obviously were all things that appeared high on priority checklists, so that's how we started.
The Wannabos are like thousands of Americans who, while doubting the apocalyptic predictions of starvation and violence, are equally unconvinced by the bland reassurances of government types. There's no catch-all profile of this group, but many are rural, many conservative, and many have access to the Internet. The Net, after all, is where most Y2K information, good and bad, resides. Not coincidentally, it is the ultimate Y2K-readiness bazaar.
Bafundo: Hey, do I get to do a plug for the store?
Michael Bafundo owns First Army (, which claims the biggest military surplus webpage in the world. He estimates a quarter of his business is now people buying year 2000 survival supplies: generators, gas cans, water purifiers, and yes, MREs.
Bafundo: About three months ago, I had a woman call up, an elderly woman, she said, "Do you carry those MREs that the military uses?" I said, "Yeah, we carry 'em." She said, "I'd like to order a couple." I thought fine, she wants something to snack on or keep around for whatever reason. And she said, "Give me twelve cases." And she's been ordering 12 cases a week ever since then.

Enger (reporter): So Y2K so far has been, I take it, really good business for you.

Bafundo: Well, it's good business if money's worth anything after 2000.
If money's not worth anything after 2000, a lot of Internet-based businesses might be stuck with drawers of useless cash. There are now hundreds of websites selling solar panels, windmills, weapons, and short-wave radios. Dozens offer dehydrated food; a year's supply for a family of four, shipped to your home, runs from $3,000 to $6,000.

While some merchants see Y2K as a chance to stock bunkers and possibly useless bank accounts, others see it as forcing a return to agrarianism. Geri Guidetti is a biologist who says the best way to avoid going hungry, should power and supply lines falter, will be to grow your own garden. And not from just any seeds - from increasingly rare non-hybrid seeds, the old-fashioned kind that reproduce themselves year after year. Guidetti's organization, the Ark Institute (, sells them by the carton, along with books on self-sufficiency.

Guidetti: My concept is to take this ark - this botanical ark - and try to distribute it to as many states in the country as possible. Get people to grow these seeds, multiply them, and give them away. Put me out of business in a year. If you put me out of business in a year, I will have done my job, because that'll mean everybody's getting free seed from everybody else, and we have literally sustained the ark.
The Ark Institute sells a case of 50 non-hybrid varieties for $159; business is so good Guidetti is moving to a bigger acreage next year so she can produce more seed.

If you're thinking of acreage in order to, as one website urges, "get out of the city," several Internet Realtors offer Y2K-ready properties: rural homes complete with generators, fenced gardens, stocked pantries, and hand-pump wells.

Is there anything you can't find? Probably not, if you know where to look and not much of it's free, except for opinion. One website, maintained by one Thomas Chittum, offers audio of a circus barker hawking Y2K bologna sandwiches and dehydrated water - just add water.

But skeptics like Chittum are in the minority. Most technology writers and Y2K-oriented websites portray a Year 2000 where those who prepare will be glad they did. That makes Fred Moody, a tech columnist for ABC and the author of I Sing the Body Electronic, a voice in the wilderness.

Moody: I don't think there's a need to stockpile food or take to the hills or anything like that.
Moody expects the Y2K bug to cause only minor local problems and his columns saying so have provoked accusations from programmers of sticking his head in the sand. He says after so much buildup, Y2K will be the anticlimax by which all others are measured.
Moody: It seems like every crisis or pseudo-crisis, almost every event in this country, always brings out the salesman in somebody. And there's always a market for it.
Moody expects that market to grow exponentially in the coming year after which, he says, if the lights are still on, the food shelves might find themselves swimming in donations.