Hilo residents awoke Saturday morning to sunny skies, a bit of vog hugging Maunakea, and a dire warning of imminent nuclear catastrophe.
Only a month since the state initiated a ballistic missile warning system, a false alert was blasted to cellphones and automatically played on radio and television stations statewide after an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency clicked the wrong button by mistake on a computer screen during an internal test, officials said.
Vern Miyagi, state emergency management administrator, said that test is done occasionally during shift changes to ensure the employees are familiar with the system. He said it involves a two-step process and that the staff have to click another button to proceed.
But, rather than clicking the practice button, they initiated the actual warning, which told residents in all caps that a missile threat was inbound, to take immediate shelter and that “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Across Hawaii, that mistake caused residents to fear the worst was upon them.
“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.”
While terrifying for the public, the incident was an embarrassing black eye for the state which had been pushing awareness of the nuclear threat from North Korea.
“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.”
It would take the state 38 minutes to issue another cellphone and broadcast alert notifying residents there was no threat. Correction messages were issued about 10 minutes after the false report via the agency’s social media pages, the state said.
Miyagi said HEMA had to manually create a cancellation message to send to cellphones since one wasn’t prepared. It also had to 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 official confirmation from the state at 8:15 a.m., seven minutes after the false report was issued, that there was no attack. At 8:24 a.m., the county issued an audio message of Kim declaring there is no threat, which was sent to radio stations to play.
Kim, a former county civil defense chief, said the county appeared to be the first in the state to get the corrected message out.
He noted the public needs to trust the system and that the state should have responded faster.
“Until this is absolutely identified and corrected, the system is bunk,” Kim said.
He said he was against the idea of the state using the missile warning system because he didn’t think it was ready.
“This is something you do not toy with in any way shape or form,” Kim said. “It’s got to be almost fool proof. Every element has got to be addressed.”
He said his questions were regarding oversight and training.
“We have an obligation to make sure we do it right,” Kim said. “And that’s our job.”
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.
Ige 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 siren warning tests. The missile warning test involves an air-raid tone being played on the sirens, which are typically used to warn of tsunamis. Those siren tests will continue, though the internal tests that caused the error will be suspended.
Talmadge Magno, county Civil Defense director, said there were unconfirmed reports of sirens activating on the island along with the false alerts.
State 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 he couldn’t comment on whether the employee who made the mistake will be suspended or punished.
Officials advise people to shelter in place if they get an alert.
If an actual attack occurs, they would only have about 15 minutes until impact.
Magno said residents who were unsure of what to do should prepare a family plan and practice it. He said his agency got probably more than 100 calls from confused or terrified residents.
Magno also cautioned that if North Korea targets Oahu in the event war breaks out, it’s still possible Hawaii Island could be hit.
Officials advise residents to have supplies for two weeks in the event of any disaster.
“If the target is Oahu and it hits away from our island, there’s a good chance we’ll survive,” Magno said. “There might be some fallout but we can start tracking that stuff and tell people where the fallout is going to be.”
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.