Saturday morning at 8:07 a.m. people across the state of Hawaii got the same alert on their cell phones:
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
My girlfriend and I got dressed in a hurry, started filling the bathtub with clean water, and went to make sure everyone in the house was awake. As a geopolitical forecaster I take the risk of conflict with North Korea seriously enough to have thought about what I would if there were an attack. Most buildings in Hawaii don’t have basements, so we had agreed that the safest place to shelter would be in the sewer that runs behind our yard. But you need a crowbar to open the manhole cover, and we had never gotten around to getting one. So 10 minutes after the alert went out—Hawaii says a North Korean missile could reach the state in just 12 minutes—we were just standing in the middle of our living room.
It began to occur to us that it might be false alarm. Hawaii’s nuclear attack warning sirens had never gone off. There was nothing in the news about an attack; the radio was just playing regular programming. Twelve minutes after the initial alert went out Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard tweeted that she had “CONFIRMED WITH OFFICIALS THAT THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE”. The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency confirmed the same thing on Facebook and Twitter a minute later, but it took 38 minutes for the agency to send out a text saying the original alert was a false alarm.
It may be the first time a nuclear attack warning was mistakenly broadcast to the general public. The Hawaii Department of Defense released a statement saying that it had accidentally sent out “a routine internal test during a shift change”. There was never any reason to believe Hawaii was under attack. A civil defense official had simply selected the wrong thing from a confusing dropdown menu of alert options. The design of the alert system made it difficult to quickly cancel the alert and put out an all-clear message.
For about 10 minutes Saturday we believed we might all—both of us, our friends and our neighbors, our cats, everyone—be about to die. The people I talked to had a range of reactions to the missile warning. My neighbor figured it was probably a mistake and stayed in bed. A woman at the farmer’s market told me it was ridiculous to think we were threatened by a ballistic missile—I’m not sure she understood a ballistic missile could carry a nuclear warhead—but other vendors left the market as soon as the alert came. The barista at our local café just kept pulling espresso shots, because where was she going to go anyway? Some of us denied the danger, others rushed to shelter or home to their families, and others just resigned themselves.
Mostly we realized how unprepared we are. There really is nowhere for us to go. We can’t build and stock shelters for hundreds of thousands of people tomorrow. If the US and North Korea exchange missiles, we are on the front lines whether we like it or not. We are scared and angry. I bought a crowbar Saturday afternoon.
Hawaii does not recommend seeking shelter in a sewer in the case of real attack. If possible, you should take shelter in a concrete building. This post has been updated to reflect new information about how the false alarm was issued.