HONOLULU, HI (WCMH/AP) — A false alarm that warned of a ballistic missile headed for Hawaii sent the islands into a panic Saturday, with people abandoning cars in a highway and preparing to flee their homes until officials said the cellphone alert was a mistake.
It wasn’t clear exactly what happened — House Speaker Scott Saiki said someone pushed the wrong button, and the White House said the episode was “purely a state exercise.”
But for nearly 40 minutes, it seemed like the world was about to end in Hawaii, an island paradise already jittery over the threat of nuclear-tipped missiles from North Korea.
The emergency alert, which was sent to cellphones statewide just before 8:10 a.m., said: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Gov. David Ige met Saturday morning with top officials of the State Department of Defense and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency to determine what caused the false alarm and prevent it from happening again.
“This should not have happened. We are investigating the sequence of events that occurred. An error was made in emergency management which allowed this false alarm to be sent,” he said. “It was a procedure that occurs at the change of shift where they go through to make sure that the system is working and an employee pushed the wrong button.”
Employees undergo a shift change three times a day.
Vern T. Miyagi, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency administrator, said he was not there when it happened, but the mistake was “regrettable.”
“There’s a checklist that is in place so that should have been followed, and I’m going to find out why it wasn’t or what happened,” he said. “Again, let me assure you that I’m going to look through this, investigate, and this will not happen again.”
The incident prompted defense agencies including the Pentagon and the U.S. Pacific Command to issue the same statement, that they had “detected no ballistic missile threat to Hawaii.”
The White House said President Donald Trump, at his private club in Florida, was briefed on the false alert. White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said it “was purely a state exercise.”
Saiki, the House speaker, said the system Hawaii residents have been told to rely on failed miserably. He also took emergency management officials to task for taking 30 minutes to issue a correction, prolonging panic.
“Clearly, government agencies are not prepared and lack the capacity to deal with emergency situations,” he said in a statement.
REACTION TO FALSE ALARM ACROSS SOCIAL MEDIA
The alert caused a tizzy on the island and across social media.
At the PGA Tour’s Sony Open on Oahu, Waialae Country Club was largely empty and players were still a few hours from arriving when the alert showed up. The tournament staff urged the media center to evacuate. A local radio show from the clubhouse, next to glass windows that overlook the Pacific, kept broadcasting. Staff members at the club streamed into the clubhouse and tried to seek cover in the locker room, which was filled with the players’ golf bags, but instead went into the kitchen.
Several players took to Twitter.
“Just woke up here in Hawaii to this lovely text. Somebody can verify this?” tweeted Emiliano Grillo of Argentina.
Justin Thomas, the PGA Tour player of the year, tweeted, “To all that just received the warning along with me this morning … apparently it was a ‘mistake’?? hell of a mistake!! Haha glad to know we’ll all be safe.”
In Honolulu, Jaime Malapit, owner of a hair salon, texted his clients that he was cancelling their appointments and was closing his shop for the day. He said he was still in bed when the phone started going off “like crazy.” He thought it was a tsunami warning at first.
“I woke up and saw a missile warning and thought ‘no way.’ I thought ‘No, this is not happening today,'” Malapit said.
He was still “a little freaked out” and feeling paranoid even after hearing it was a false alarm.
Richard Ing, a Honolulu attorney, was doing a construction project at home when his wife told him about the alert.
He dug his phone out and had confirmed he had the same alert. Attempts to find further information on the television or radio didn’t provide further information, but then he saw on Twitter that it was a false alarm.
While he was trying to confirm, his wife and children were preparing to evacuate in case they needed to move to safer ground.
After finding out it was a mistake, Ing tried to find some humor in the situation.
“I thought to myself, it must be someone’s last day at work or someone got extremely upset at a superior and basically did this as a practical joke,’ he said. “But I think it’s a very serious problem if it wasn’t that, or even it was, it shows that we have problems in the system that can cause major disruption and panic and anxiety among people in Hawaii.”
Cherese Carlson, in Honolulu for a class and away from her children, said she called to make sure they were inside after getting the alert.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is it. Something bad’s about to happen and I could die,'” she said.
Others were outraged that such an alert could go out in error.
Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz tweeted the false alarm was “totally inexcusable” and was caused by human error.
“There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process,” he wrote.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai also took to social media to announce the panel would launch an investigation.
HAWAII HAS BEEN PREPARING FOR MISSILE SCENARIO
While it’s unlikely North Korea would actually fire a missile at Hawaii, the state says it’s been preparing for a worst-case scenario.
If a launch were to occur, The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) says a missile would take about 20 minutes to reach Hawaii.
The first five minutes would be used by the military to determine if it poses a threat. That would leave just 15 minutes to respond.
“We’re going to trigger the siren system, the second siren sound. We’re going to send messages out on radio and TV, so if you’re listening to a radio or TV station, you’re going to see this,” Toby Clairmont, HI-EMA executive officer, told NBC4 sister station KHON. “If you have a smart phone, a text is going to come out with a big banner in front of it. It’ll make a strange sound and tell you something is happening. All that will happen within the first few minutes.”
Hawaiian residents could be asked to shelter for a few days or up to two weeks, meaning they should keep at least 14 days of emergency supplies on hand.
Emergency officials have been working on these plans since December 2016, though they stress Hawaii is still safe.
“Our job is, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, is to work on preparedness and protect the citizens, the residents of the state of Hawaii and all our visitors. So by getting ahead of this and getting the public aware of what may happen, that’s what we’re doing,” said Maj. Gen. Arthur Logan, state adjutant general and HI-EMA director. “We want our tourism industry to continue doing what it’s doing and we want our visitors to come and enjoy Hawaii, and we’ll worry about the preparedness and how to keep Hawaii safe.”
HOW DOES THE EMERGENCY ALERT SYSTEM WORK?
Courtney Harrington, Emergency Alert System director, explains:
“What happens the system is set in two places. One is the Emergency Management at the city, the other one is in the Birkhimer Tunnel on the state side of civil defense. There are messages that in there that can be sent out. In most cases, they are pre-written to save time.
“What are the checks and balances to keep from putting something like this out? If there’s none, there should be. If they are, why didn’t they stop it? It’s a matter of moving forward now and finding out what happened.
“The system is a good system. Technically, it’s a great system. This is exactly what it’s designed to do. The weak point of anything of course, is when somebody pushes a button, that they push the wrong one. When you sit in front of your computer and you want to delete a file, you get a big notice that pops up on the screen that says ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ Is there something like that in the system? And we need to check.”
The Department of Transportation said the error did not cause any widespread impacts at airports and harbors. Some planes may have been delayed, but not by much.