Storms and Rumors of Storms

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SMYRNA, Ga. -- Irony abounds.

There I was Thursday at the

Brainstorm Year 2000 National Symposium

, mapping out the coming Y2K disaster, but the real storm was taking place right outside my hotel window. Just as I left the hotel bar with William Ulrich, a Y2K analyst with

Triaxsys Research

, a wicked fierce storm blew through just before 1 a.m., and, though I couldn't see it through the rain, a tornado touched down just two miles away. At least five people were killed in Georgia, and police crews are still searching through the rubble of wrecked homes for more victims. The same storm marched through other parts of the South, killing at least 33 others in Alabama and Mississippi.

I went to check out the damage Thursday morning and it was as awesome and weird as everything you might have heard about tornadoes. The Cobb County police had the area sealed off, and though they were less than impressed by my credentials ("Street dot wha?") they were kind enough to let me though. Police and fire trucks were parked in the middle of Cobb Highway. Crews from

Georgia Power

were taking down torn power lines. Every once in a while cops on bicycles took off in packs as they got periodic reports of looting (unfounded reports, it would turn out). Helicopters from the local news affiliates circled overhead with the sky disarmingly clear and sunny.

The tornado looked like it had hit the runway of

Dobbins Air Force Base

, run south up a hill and through a

Volvo

dealership, then zigzagged east, down the unfortunately-named Windy Hill Road. "This is one of the highest points in Cobb County," said Gene Santiago, a sales representative at

Chris Volvo

. "The wind usually whips right through here, in the summer it's nice and cool. But this ... this ain't so cool." All around him was wreckage. A green 1998 Volvo 960 was impaled on a short post. A white Volvo 570 had been thrown up in the air, hit a lamp pole, slid down the pole and landed on the dealership's doormat, which had been picked up and blown to the top of the hill. "We're probably looking at well over $250,000 in damage," said Santiago.

Across the street, at the intersection of Windy Hill Road and Cobb Highway, a Chevron station had been reduced to a pile of twisted metal. The sign was torn from the top of the station, flew about 500 yards over some trees, down a hill and into the front window of

Haverty's Fine Furniture

, where it was sucked through the back of the store until it blew out the rear cinderblock wall. A giant letter "e" sat in a love seat next the big busted lamp and three throw pillows, which were unmoved.

Next door, Ted Negis, the vice president of

Ed Voyles Honda and Hyundai

, was standing in the parking lot trying to make a decision. A 50-foot-long, pretzelized piece of white metal siding was dangling on a drooping power line, twisting in the wind with ominous creaks and groans. Parked just underneath it were three shiny new Honda Accords. "I don't know if we should try to run those cars out of there," he said, "or wait for Georgia Power to come get it down.

"You hate to see have this kind of disruption in your business," says Negis. "It breaks your stride. We were having one of our best years ever, and to interrupt this, well, I don't know how or when we'll get back on track."

Funny. That's just the kind of talk that was coming out of the Year 2000 conference the day before. Talk of how a one-week or one-month disruption in business could wreak longtime havoc. Kevin Schick, currently of

AnswerThink Consulting

and a former

Gartner

analyst who wrote some early seminal research on Y2K, was lamenting that people don't seem to feel the urgency of the coming Y2K problem, but pay loads of attention to the possibility of an asteroid hitting the earth. "There's no cool graphic illustration of your computer shutting off," he said. "Hollywood isn't making movies about it. But this asteroid thing may never happen -- and the Year 2000 will."

Even before the tornado hit late Wednesday night, I had a scare early in the day listening to Jay Amin, the supervisor of computer systems for

Texas Utilities

. His topic: Nuclear Utility Industry Y2K Issues, Impacts and Readiness Plans. "If you asked me a few months ago if we were looking at the Year 2000 issue, I would have been hesitant," he said. "But now I can say that we are fully looking at it." Then he went on to say that his utility was finding all sorts of problems, including problems with embedded control devices deep within the nuclear power plants. Amin said that he was having trouble getting information from other utilities, because everyone was afraid of creating a paper trail that could lead to lawsuits. "People are shying away from sharing information, and I think that is bad," he said. "But I think that eventually people are going to share information."

Eventually. The turn of the century is just 90 weekends away -- 632 days -- and these guys are talking about eventually. Imagine if 90% of the Year 2000 projects get completed, but the power goes out. Then what? If only a few plants go down, will that create a brownout across the Eastern Seaboard? What kind of unique power demands might be in place then? What if there's a cold spell putting already putting a drain on the power supply? "Texas Utilities just started six months ago," said one analyst, who asked not to be named. "I think the

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

is going to have to shut down a few power plants. Let's just hope for good weather on December 31, 1999."

Indeed, because I've already seen the havoc that chaos and bad weather can wreak. And I wouldn't bet that this market can handle such a disruption.

Silicon Babylon is an occasional column by West Coast Bureau Chief Cory Johnson. He welcomes your feedback at

cjohnson@thestreet.com.