A Call to Alarm in Hawaii

Missile alert HawaiiOn Saturday, January 13, an erroneous alert about a ballistic middle inbound for Hawaiʻi created public fear and confusion. This personal essay isn’t our usual type of content at The Supernatural Fox Sisters, though dealing with a potential missile threat was certainly a spooky situation.

Sleeping in on Saturday morning in Hawaiʻi—sounds lovely, doesn’t it? To many it evokes images of palm trees gently swaying outside the window as waves are heard crashing in the distance. When you finally venture outside you feel the hot sun on your face and hear the birds singing in the trees. Our most recent Saturday in Hawaiʻi was a very different experience.

On this morning, terrified students ran through campus seeking shelter while cars sped down city streets that were still fairly empty. Confused visitors crowded into hotel lobbies, asking staff what to do, calling loved ones to say goodbye and crying quietly in small groups. Families clustered together with uncertainty, listening for civil defense sirens that never sounded. As this was happening, my boyfriend and I huddled in our bathroom. He searched the Internet for further news of the missile attack warning displayed on our cellphones while I mentally inventoried the supplies we had managed to gather before shutting the door in hope of finding protection against a nuclear blast.

What do I do?

I was first alerted to the ballistic missile warning at 8:10am by a call from a colleague. I checked my phone and saw the incredibly disturbing text alert of a ballistic missile inbound to Hawaiʻi. “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” My heart jumped. We turned on the television and didn’t see any warnings, but then we heard an automated voice playing over the regular programming with a similar announcement:

“If you are indoors, stay indoors. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors, well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building, or lie on the floor.”

While throwing supplies into a laundry basket, I called my work sites that had outreach services on Saturday to make sure they were aware of the alert. My boyfriend wrangled our cat and checked for further updates.

My brother called as we were in our hectic preparations. He still gets phone alerts from the University of Hawaiʻi, where he went to school, although he and his family have since moved to the mainland. The alerts are usually about moped thefts or suspicious people on campus, but this one was a doozy. He was getting the same alert that we were—that a ballistic missile was bound for Hawaiʻi. When he called I knew who it was from the caller ID, so I quickly answered and told him I couldn’t talk because we were in the midst of preparing. He said, “All right,” and we hung up. It was a very chaotic moment.

In retrospect, this was probably not the best way for me to handle his call. It must have been terrifying for my brother and sister-in-law. But I was so focused on implementing our plan that I didn’t have time to think about much else. From the state briefing I knew it was estimated that 90 percent of the Hawaiʻi population would survive a blast, and that minimizing radiation exposure afterwards would be the key to survival for most. My boyfriend, meanwhile, was fairly skeptical the entire time, because regular TV programming was still on even though there was a voiceover on some channels warning of the impending attack. For my family, though, there were 20 long minutes during which they were unable to find any information about what was happening in Hawaiʻi on the Internet or television. They had no idea if we’d been killed by a missile.

My adrenaline was high, but I remained focused on trying to get everything together as we’d planned: food, water, medicine, emergency radio, cat supplies, buckets, plastic bags, and uh … what else? I couldn’t remember. It felt as though time had sped up—I was sure we had passed the 15-minute mark and were still not in the bathroom. Our cat had managed to escape her enclosure, and as we stood against our gigantic sliding glass door trying to get her out from behind the bookcase, I remember thinking, “This is probably the worst place in our entire apartment to be standing right now.” We managed to get our terrified cat into her own safety location. Finally, we got into the bathroom and shut the door. I had no idea how much time had passed.

Is this for real?

As mentioned previously, my boyfriend was always dubious that the warning indicated a real event. Thankfully, he played along, and we implemented most of our plan. Once we were in the bathroom, I started checking our laundry basket of supplies, realizing how much I had forgotten, while my boyfriend searched his computer for additional news. We could still hear the TV through the door. The voiceover alert had stopped, but there was still no break in regular programming telling us what was happening.

At about 8:30am my boyfriend found information on Facebook stating that the warning was in error. He posted the information for my family on Facebook, messaged my sister-in-law, and then called his own mother. Meanwhile, I called my colleagues to let them know it was a false alarm, that there was no missile heading towards us. I insisted we stay in the bathroom a few minutes longer, just in case. With the mixed messages, it seemed like it couldn’t hurt.

It was a stressful 20 minutes for us, but for many others it was much worse. People were confused about what to do and where to go. Some folks had to explain to their children what was happening. There were also those unable to reach family or friends, and those overwhelmed by terror and hopelessness as they waited. My heart goes out to everyone who suffered during this ordeal.

How did we get here?

One of the things that has impressed me about Hawaiʻi since having moved here 25 years ago is the Civil Defense system, which includes four county organizations, with the state-based Hawaii Emergency Managment Agency (HI-EMA) coordinating between them. The HI-EMA does more than respond to disaster, adhering to a mission of Prevention, Protection, Mitigation, Reponse, and Recovery. The agency is based inside the Diamond Head crater, a location of significant history for the defense of Oʻahu. Fortifications on the crater began in 1906, and many of the batteries, bunkers, and pillboxes built over the years can still be seen when climbing Diamond Head. To some we may seem like a little island in the middle of the Pacific. In fact, the island chain of Hawaiʻi has had significant geopolitical importance for the US since well before the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy 125 years ago today.

Hawaiʻi has the largest statewide siren system in the United States. The first time newcomers to Hawaiʻi hear the sirens, which are tested at noon on the first business day of every month, it can be an eerie experience. The tendency is to look around at others to gauge what your response should be. When my mother was visiting a few weeks ago, I reminded her to expect the test sirens to go off. During these uncertain times, I didn’t want her unduly alarmed. On Saturday we didn’t hear any civil defense sirens, which in retrospect was a clue that the alert was an error. (Some of our military bases did sound their alarms after the state warning was sent out.) The state siren system operates separately from the alert system, so the false alarm didn’t trigger the sirens.

The conflict between the US and North Korea has been present for some time, but tensions have increased since the summer. The state of Hawaiʻi has no control over missile development in North Korea, US foreign policy, or what tweets might escalate the situation. Yet it does have the responsibility of helping state residents prepare for emergencies.

Last September, HI-EMA officials started meetings to discuss emergency responses to military threats. They distributed preparedness briefs to educate both lawmakers about their ongoing efforts and the public about how to respond in the unlikely event of a nuclear attack. With the probability of only 10–15 minutes’ warning of an incoming missile, the focus of the response is to shelter in place, with an emphasis to “get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned.” In early October, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, our largest university, sent the HI-EMA information to all staff and students in an email titled, “In the event of a nuclear attack.” This is when I first read the brief, which I found educational, if a little frightening. The information was discussed in the media but not widely disseminated. It’s no surprise most people weren’t sure what to do when we got the warning.

In November, for the first time since the Cold War, HI-EMA incorporated a siren indicating an impending missile attack into its existing civil defense warning siren system. This is when I decided we needed a family plan, just in case the remote possibility became a reality. I don’t consider myself a “prepper”—I’m more of casual planner. (No offense to you doomsday preppers; ­you’ll be here long after the rest of us.) My boyfriend went along with the idea of having a plan, though he thinks I’m being a little reactionary—maybe even a lot reactionary. He may be right, but having a plan gives me some peace of mind. I was certainly glad we had a plan when Saturday came.

How did this happen?

Within a few hours following Saturday’s alert, it was reported that an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency had been initiating an internal test, which the state has been conducting since November. At 8:07am, an HI-EMA employee accidentally chose the missile alert option instead of the missile drill option, sending out a notification about an incoming missile to cellphones across the state. It was a location-based warning, which was why both visitors and residents received it.  Some, like my brother, received warnings through other notification systems triggered by the state warning. Choosing the wrong option also triggered longer warnings to automatically broadcast on television and radio stations. Still, some people never saw or heard any warnings.

Though HI-EMA confirmed with the US Pacific Command within three minutes of the initial alarm that there was no missile launch, there was no false alarm alert option built into the system. HI-EMA put out corrections through Facebook and Twitter at 8:20am, but didn’t send a false alert notification to phones affirming the previous message was an error until 8:45am.

Initially it was indicated that the state system didn’t have the ability to send out an immediate correction, but later it was revealed that state authorities didn’t want to rescind the warning until they could consult with FEMA. It was 38 long minutes before HI-EWA sent a correction through the warning system that there was no incoming missile. All the reasons for this failure will become increasingly clear as the incident is thoroughly investigated.

HI-EMA is now re-evaluating their internal processes and outside communication in regard to emergency warnings. Similarly, it’s given us a chance to revamp our family plan. I realize I can’t rely on memory during such a stressful situation. We will store a few more emergency supplies in other locations in the apartment and the places where we work. We will make some other changes to our plan. Mostly, we’re just hoping to never experience this event ever again.

As political tensions had been increasing over the fall, my sister-in-law would occasionally joke that we should move away from Hawaiʻi. My family knew we had a plan, and I had even gone over it with my mother when she had been here visiting a few weeks before. While our plan gave us purpose for those 20 minutes, it’s not much of a comfort to loved ones thousands of miles away. A plan doesn’t mean you’ll survive, but it can help you to prepare for what’s to come.

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