Growing up in Pensacola, Fla., hurricanes were a fact of life for me. Of course, back when I was a child, there was no such thing as ``Doppler Radar'' or hurricane classification. You found out a hurricane was coming because word traveled from folks on boats and airplanes, up and down the coast, through the cities and towns. If a storm was coming, my family and neighbors had no idea whether it was a ``class one'' or a ``class five.'' We never knew if the hurricane would level the house or just rattle a few windows.
But we still got ready for that unknown.
When we heard a hurricane was coming, we drew tubs of water, pulled the lanterns out of storage, checked the fuel in the propane stove, stocked up on wood and made sure we had at least 10 days of non-perishable food in the cupboards. Some folks even boarded up their windows...just in case.
As we enter the new year, Americans, and indeed the whole world, are on a storm watch. I know you've heard about it—the year 2000 (Y2K) computer problem. And this storm watch is going to be a lot like my days growing up in Pensacola. We know it's coming, but we don't know if it's going to blow down our houses or just rattle the windows.
But there is one thing we all should know—we'd better prepare. As the leader of the nation's largest advocacy group for Main Street business, the National Federation of Independent Business, I'm especially worried about whether small businesses are going to be prepared for the Y2K storm.
A recent study sponsored by Wells Fargo Bank and conducted by the Gallup Organization found that almost 5 million small businesses are at risk of Year 2000 computer glitches. The study also found that three-quarters of those who know about the problem have not taken action, and half have no plans to act before the turn of the century.
Whether we like it or not, Y2K is a problem that demands the attention of every computer-dependent business and even some that aren't.
Some small firms—those that recently purchased hardware and off-the-shelf software—may escape, since most computer makers and software developers are addressing the Y2K code in their products.
But many small-business owners are not so fortunate. Most of their risk exposure comes from computers, but a third are at risk from other equipment failures such as cash registers, telephone or elevator systems that use time or date-dependent microchips.
Furthermore, trial lawyers across the country are licking their chops at the prospect of Y2K-related lawsuits.
Having owned a small business, I know how hard it can be just to keep the doors of your business open for another year. It's hard work, and the day-to-day trials can prevent anyone from looking too far into the future. But I hope all business owners treat Jan. 1, 1999, as the 365-day countdown to when the storm hits. I hope they prepare for this unknown in the same way my family prepared for hurricanes.
We're fortunate to have fair warning on the approach of this storm, and not preparing yourself and your business would be as foolish as not buying enough food to outlast a Florida hurricane.
Mr. Faris is president of the National Federation of Independent Business, Washington, D.C.