WAIMEA — Gov. David Ige said Saturday he is confident last month’s false alarm about a ballistic missile heading toward Hawaii won’t happen again and he stands by his decision to begin the drills in the first place.
“It cannot happen again,” he said, regarding the incident that caused panic across the state. “We already implemented the changes required that would ensure Jan. 13 would not ever happen again.”
According to federal and state investigation reports, the false alert telling residents via cellphones and radio and television broadcasts that a missile was inbound was sent because a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee confused an internal drill for the real thing.
While Ige said the state needs to be prepared for the potential of a nuclear strike from North Korea, investigations into the incident showed HEMA lacked proper internal controls and wasn’t prepared for recalling a false alert. It took 38 minutes for a corrected message to be issued.
Ige, who spoke to the Tribune-Herald following a visit to the Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival, acknowledged the state failed that day by not quickly notifying the public that there was no attack. He said it is learning from its mistakes.
“We identified many areas that need to be improved,” Ige said. “We have assessed the performance of individuals in those responsibilities and we took action so we could hold them accountable for their performance in that situation. I think that, in general, we are committed to doing that on a going forward basis.”
Since the incident, the unnamed employee who pressed the button was fired, HEMA Administrator Vern Miyagi resigned, a second employee quit before disciplinary action was taken, and another was being suspended. Toby Clairmont, executive officer of the agency, also resigned, though he wrote on Facebook that he wasn’t responsible for the mishap.
State officials initially said the unnamed worker, whose attorney says he will likely sue the state for being “scapegoated,” mistakenly pressed the wrong button. Ige said that was the presumption at the time because others in the room knew it was a drill.
Investigations show the employee had mistaken drills for tsunami and fire warnings as actual events in the past, and co-workers were not comfortable working with him.
Following the false alarm, the state began requiring more than one person to be involved in issuing such alerts and suspended the internal drills, which began in November. Monthly air-raid siren tests are continuing.
Not everyone was on board with starting the tests. Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim has said he was against the idea because he didn’t think the state was ready.
Ige said tensions between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear weapons program made it necessary.
“They continue to make progress in what they are doing,” he said. “They detonated a hydrogen bomb in the last two years. Certainly, we believe we want the state to be the best prepared state in the country should there ever be a ballistic missile attack.”
Still, many were confused about what to do when they got the alert. He said the state needs to do more to educate the public.
Additionally, there were reports of businesses closing their doors as people sought to shelter inside. Ige, who noted businesses have raised questions about liability, wouldn’t commit to requiring them to shelter people in the event of an actual attack.
“We are looking to learn as best as we can what makes the most sense,” he said. “And then we want to work with businesses to develop best practices of what we would recommend that they do going forward.”
In regard to what he would change about his response to the incident, Ige said: “I think that you know, first and foremost, our responsibility is to inform the public and make them aware should there be a threat to their well-being. In this instance, the state failed to inform that it was a false alert and cancel it.”
The governor had trouble himself getting the word out through social media because he forgot the password to his Twitter account, which he relies on staff to maintain.
The false alarm occurred shortly before the official start of campaign season. Ige faces U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who has criticized him for lacking leadership, in the Democratic primary.
Asked why voters should give him another four years, Ige said he’s not the “typical old boy politician who makes secret deals on behalf of special interests. I’m a collaborative, innovative leader; I believe in community engagement and engaging public servants to be part of the solution.”
He said Hawaii Island has benefited from his administration through the restart of international flights at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport, which he credited with increasing tourism numbers, and completion of the latest improvements to the Daniel K. Inouye Highway and Hilo Harbor.
Ige said he continues to support the Thirty Meter Telescope project as well as Kim’s proposal to make Maunakea an international symbol of peace and the quest for knowledge.
He said he is committed to ensuring TMT access to the mountain and that opponents can legally protest should the project, which is back in the hands of the state Supreme Court, move forward.
“We continue to acknowledge those who feel differently have the ability to protest,” Ige said.
“My primary concern and my primary commitment is the health, safety and well-being of everyone on Hawaii Island.”
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.