State officials apologized for a false missile alert that caused panic and confusion across Hawaii on Saturday morning.
During a press conference in Honolulu, state Emergency Management Administrator Vern Miyagi said the alert was issued to cell phones and broadcast outlets when an employee clicked the wrong button on a computer screen during an internal test of the system. Those exercises are being suspended but monthly siren tests will continue.
“We deeply apologize for the trouble and heartbreak that we caused today,” Miyagi said. “We spent the last few months trying to get ahead of this threat and provide enough preparation time for the public.”
The incident began at about 8:05 a.m. when a Hawaii Emergency Management Authority employee, during a shift change, went through the procedures to initiate the alert in the event of an actual attack as part of the test. Miyagi said that’s a two-step process and the employee has to click another button to say they are sure they want to proceed. He said they clicked the wrong button by mistake.
At 8:07 a.m., according to HEMA, the warning was triggered, prompting push notifications to be sent to cell phones telling residents “THIS IS NOT A DRILL” and that they should seek shelter immediately. Automatic broadcasts also were played on radio and television stations.
In Hilo, drivers pulled to the side of the road upon getting the messages, while shoppers were told to stay indoors. Many wondered whether they or their family members would live to see another day.
“The first thing I thought, honestly, was we’re going to die,” said a Hilo man who declined to give his name. “We don’t have any bomb shelters here.”
At 8:10 a.m., state Adjutant Maj. Gen. Joe Logan confirmed there was no missile launch, HEMA said.
At 8:20 a.m., HEMA said it notified public of the mistake via Facebook and Twitter accounts.
But it would be until 8:45 a.m. that a second message would be sent to cell phones saying that the warning was false. Miyagi said HEMA had to manually create a cancellation message since one wasn’t prepared and get authorization from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s integral public alert and warning system to issue it. They didn’t anticipate a false alert would happen.
“They were frantically working to get the cancellation message out,” Miyagi said. He said the agency is looking to speed that process up in case it happened again, though they promised it wouldn’t.
Mayor Harry Kim said Hawaii County Civil Defense got confirmation from the state at 8:15 a.m. the warning was false. At 8:24 a.m., the county issued an audio message of Kim declaring there is no attack, which was sent to radio stations to play.
Kim said he spoke against the state adding the missile alerts, which it recently began testing, because he didn’t think it was ready.
“This is something you do not toy with in any way shape or form,” he said at Hawaii County Civil Defense’s emergency operations center. “It’s got to be almost fool proof. Every element has got to be addressed.”
Regarding the incident, Gov. David Ige said: “Today is a day that most of us will never forget. A day when many in our community thought that our worst nightmares might actually be happening.” He said he is “angry and disappointed” it happened.
He said other changes being implemented include requiring two people to be involved in issuing the warning.
The state began testing a missile warning system in December alongside its regular monthly emergency warning tests. Those will continue.
Officials defended the missile warning tests saying they want residents to be prepared in the event of an actual nuclear attack due to tensions between the United States and North Korea. But they also were concerned about loss of credibility. Many people said they didn’t know what they were suppose to do when they got the alert.
“Again, this is a mistake on our part but don’t let that stop you from preparing … if this happens for real,” Miyagi said.
He said the employee who made the mistake will be counseled and trained, but didn’t comment on whether they will be suspended or punished for the mistake.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.