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.