Pandemonium and Rage in Hawaii
A false alert of an impending missile attack highlights just how unprepared the country is for nuclear disaster.
Why would my 22-year-old brother be calling so early on a Saturday morning? I’d ignored the first call. But the second time the phone rang, I picked it up. He was panicking, his voice trembling uncharacteristically: He’d just received the emergency alert warning of a ballistic missile that was heading for Hawaii, where I’m from, and where he and my family still live. “THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” the alert read. My brother was alone, and had no idea what to do or where to go. And he wouldn’t have had much time to figure out a game plan—some estimates suggest a missile from North Korea could reach Hawaii in 20 minutes.
People across the state were terrified. Many assumed they would die, but sought shelter anyway. They took cover in mall bathrooms, bathtubs, drug stores—even a storm drain. Hawaii has very few shelters, and houses with basements are rare. There were reports of people speeding down highways and running red lights to reunite with family members. Others called one another to say “I love you” one last time.
The alert turned out to be false, an epic—almost unbelievable—mishap. A state employee had accidentally triggered the Emergency Alert System message at 8:07 a.m., during what should have been a routine internal test. It took officials 38 minutes to announce their mistake, and to confirm that the warning had been a false alarm. Those 38 minutes were the 38 worst minutes of many Hawaii residents’ lives. And they were just as horrifying for people outside of Hawaii who, like me, felt helpless as they contended with the prospect of never seeing their loved ones again.
That block of time was also incredibly confusing. A few people had tweeted and posted Facebook statuses showing screenshots of the alert, but no news stories or official announcements could be found online in the crucial minutes after it lit up smartphones across the Hawaiian Islands. When the trickle of social-media posts became a deluge, the situation only became more baffling. Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard tweeted from separate accounts at 8:19 a.m. and at 8:24 a.m.—more than 20 minutes before the state sent out its clarification—that the alert was a false alarm, but the update from a single Washington, D.C., politician understandably did little to stop the emergency triage already underway. The chaos that ensues after an alert like this, in addition to the main threat itself, poses one of the biggest risks of death and destruction. (As of Sunday, there haven’t been any official reports of deaths or injuries attributed to Saturday’s emergency alert.)
Matthew LoPresti, a state representative whose district is very close to Pearl Harbor (the likely target of a hypothetical bomb), recalled putting his young daughters, who are 4 and 8, in the bathtub, attempting to explain what was happening, and telling them to pray. “I couldn’t even get through a Hail Mary without my phone going off,” LoPresti, who is the vice chair of the House public-safety committee, told me. “As I sat there with my kids … I was going between this doesn’t really feel real and this is actually what it would feel like. It’s unbelievable that weapons would bring this kind of destruction.”
Once it became clear that it was a false alarm, LoPresti told me, “relief swiftly turned to ‘what the fuck happened?’ and, really, anger. I remember looking at my children, scared to death, and my 8-year-old says to me, ‘Daddy, are we at war?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ because we’re all told to take this stuff seriously … Yes, we’re at war.”
Hawaii has long contended with threats like the one people anticipated Saturday. Tension between the United States and North Korea has escalated amid the standoff between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un—so much that last year Hawaii launched a robust initiative to better prepare the state for a nuclear attack, including a massive education campaign and an enhanced emergency-notification process. In a seminar for residents last year, Vern Miyagi, the administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, described a North Korean bomb as “a major, major concern.” (This was also around the time that the communist country explicitly said it was considering using intermediate-range ballistic missiles near Guam, a U.S. territory that lies roughly 4,000 miles west of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.)
The threat against Hawaii predates Trump: In 2009, then-President Obama warned that North Korea was capable of bombing Hawaii, and the military responded by strengthening preparations in the state. And while many locals may, at least in the past, have tended to express a certain nonchalance about the North Korea threat, Hawaii at its core knows better than to shrug off the prospect of such an attack: Just over 76 years ago, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor killed more than 2,400 Americans, including civilians, and wounded more than 1,100 others. “We have a culture of preparedness in Hawaii,” said LoPresti, who spearheaded an effort last year to update the state’s disaster plans to deal with a worst-case scenario.
Yet the Saturday fiasco, and the explosion of emotion that ensued, revealed that a culture of preparedness will only go so far in protecting the Aloha State from the ravages of nuclear war. It was also a raw reminder of Hawaii’s geopolitical role in the United States—a role that, for many in the kingdom-turned-territory-turned-state, is a source of deep resentment.
Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua was in the parking lot of Long’s Drugs near downtown Honolulu when she and her husband turned on their car and heard the emergency alert on the radio.
The couple was with two of their three children and didn’t have time to drive home. Instead, they sought shelter back in Long’s and read books to the kids in the toy section. “The alert said to stay close to the ground, so we sat with them on the floor and [I] thought this could be my last moments with the kids,” said Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, a University of Hawaii professor. She also called her teenage daughter, who was elsewhere on Oahu, to ensure she was taking shelter. “There’s the immediate shock ... and then hopelessness and [the realization] that there’s something that may be changing your life.”
Goodyear-Kaʻōpua’s comments became more pointed as she reflected on the moment, blaming Trump for what seems like a starker-than-ever threat of nuclear war. But, she added, it’s just the latest chapter in what she described as a long history of oppression in Hawaii. “There are so many ways in which we’re targeted every day—not just by missiles but also the way our language is targeted, our history is targeted, our people who can’t afford to live in our homeland are targeted,” she said. “On top of that we have a layer of intense militarization that impacts our lands and waters every day and also makes us a target for the kind of aggression that we have provoked.” Next week, she noted, will be the 125th anniversary of the arguably illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Craig Santos Perez, another University of Hawaii professor, offered a similar take. Perez, who grew up in Guam, was frying an egg for his 3-year-old daughter when he saw the alert on his phone. “I had that moment of panic that the war had actually begun,” he said. “I thought the moment’s finally come.”
Although it turned out to be a false alarm, the omnipresent threat of war, he argued, is only one aspect of the broader problem of militarism in Pacific islands. “It feels deeply unjust, especially for the native people whether it’s in Guam or here in Hawaii who have to witness every day their sacred lands being used as military bases and being polluted and desecrated as well,” he said. “And to add to that, our islands are not only basis of war but they’re also targets of other foreign militaries—so in a sense we’re both a weapon and a target.”
Others view the mainland U.S.’s relationship with Hawaii as more symbiotic than it is exploitative. Tourism, a majority of it supplied by other parts of the country, is the single largest contributor to the state’s GDP—and on Saturday, Hawaii officials were forced to reckon with exactly how much they rely on those visitors. Hotels and tourist spots were especially chaotic after the alert was sent out. My 19-year-old cousin, who happened to be visiting Hawaii from San Francisco, described a scene of pandemonium at her Waikiki hotel. Hotel officials told everyone to stay inside, she explained, so for those 38 minutes (and beyond) the lobby was packed with agitated, distraught guests. Some people were so unnerved that the hotel manager gave them access to the hotel’s basement so they could calm down.
Paola Rodelas, the spokeswoman for Unite Here Local 5, a union for hotel workers, said her conversations with employees from several different hotels made it clear that no hotel had a plan for the situation. Cooks and housekeepers told Rodelas that some guests were panicked and crying; a manager told kitchen staff at one hotel about the alert and told them they should call their loved ones. “It just kind of seems, overall, that no one knew how to react,” Rodelas said, acknowledging that the disarray extended far beyond hotels. Nobody anywhere, she concluded, had any idea what to do.
After all, unlike a tsunami or hurricane, which Hawaii residents are used to preparing for (often very earnestly), the threat of a fast-arriving missile is a total unknown.
The alert was certainly a wake-up call for residents, particularly those who until now hadn’t paid much attention to the state’s latest information campaign or dismissed it as little more than fearmongering. “I’m not even really mad at the guy who pressed the button,” said Michael Kitchens, a veteran who runs the Facebook group Stolen Stuff Hawaii, which has more than 100,000 members. “I think it’s great because this is going to spur discussion.”
Chris Lee, a state representative whose district lies on Oahu’s east side, echoed Kitchens’s sentiment. “This is probably going to be the single greatest learning experience that any state has ever had in trying to figure out how to respond to an immediate threat,” he said, noting that the emergency system has never been tested like it was on Saturday. Now, he said, all the researchers and scientists and government officials designing disaster plans have a huge “treasure trove of data about what really works, how people respond, how we can save infinitely more lives than we could in the past.”
Still, Chad Blair, the politics and opinions editor at Honolulu Civil Beat, told me it could have the opposite effect, more like the boy who cried wolf—some people might not take seriously the next this-is-not-a-drill alert. He also warned against exaggerating Hawaii’s vulnerability to such a threat. North Korea has lots of targets to choose from—the latest news reports suggest North Korea now has the ability to attack Los Angeles, and even Chicago and New York City.
The probability of a bomb aside, some Hawaii residents said the event was different kind of wake-up call. The alert gave many a new appreciation for their loved ones and for the islands’ simple pleasures: the white-sand beaches, the gentle trade winds, the January sunshine. It also brought people together in a way that they hadn’t before—even in a place where the “aloha spirit” is such a fact of life it’s codified in state laws.
Lee, the east Oahu representative, recalled going to the mall after the fiasco and described a sort of surreal atmosphere in which everybody was calm and friendly. “It was like Christmas morning and everybody got a car—there was an amazing sense of camaraderie,” he said. He noticed myriad strangers greeting one another, for example, exchanging stories about their morning and offering each other their spot in line. “The little things that people worry about in day-to-day life and get frustrated with,” he said, “completely evaporated.”
Anita Hofschneider contributed reporting.