Hawaii missile false alarm sparks shock, anger and lots of apologies

A push alert that warned of an incoming ballistic missile to Hawaii and sent residents into a full-blown panic was a mistake, state emergency officials said. Picture: George F. Lee /The Star-Advertiser via AP
A push alert that warned of an incoming ballistic missile to Hawaii and sent residents into a full-blown panic was a mistake, state emergency officials said. Picture: George F. Lee /The Star-Advertiser via AP
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Hawaii residents were left shaken by the second recent blunder in Hawaii’s planning for a possible North Korean nuclear attack.

Islanders received an emergency alert warning of an imminent strike, with the message sent to hundreds of thousands of mobile phones.

People waited for nearly 40 minutes.

Then came the second mobile alert; someone had hit the wrong button and there was no missile.

Some people abandoned cars on the highway and others gathered in the interiors of their homes to wait for what seemed like the inevitable blast that would cause widespread death and destruction.

The message sent statewide just after 6pm GMT on Saturday read: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s administrator, Vern Miyagi, said he took responsibility for the mistake.

He said officials would study the error to make sure it did not happen again.

Major General Joe Logan said a written report would be prepared. State lawmakers announced they would hold a hearing this Friday and Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai said on social media the panel would launch an investigation.

The backlash from lawmakers was swift.

Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki said the system residents had been told to rely on failed miserably.

“Clearly government agencies are not prepared and lack the capacity to deal with emergency situations,” he said in a statement.

Hawaii US Senator Brian Schatz tweeted the false alarm was “totally inexcusable”.

“There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process,” he wrote.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted there was no threat about 10 minutes after the initial alert, but that did not reach people who were not on the social media platform. A mobile alert informing of the false alarm did not reach cellphones until about 40 minutes later.

Many people said they were resigned to the fact there was little they could actually do if a missile was to be launched toward the remote island chain, especially with only about 15 minutes of warning time for a strike from North Korea.

Joseph Kira was home with his kids when the alert came. His wife was at the gym.

“My wife was going ballistic,” he said. “At that point, you just pray and find God.”

With the threat of missiles from North Korea on people’s minds, the state reintroduced the Cold War-era warning siren tests last month.

Even though the state says nearly 93 per cent of the islands’ 386 sirens worked properly during last month’s test, a dozen mistakenly played an ambulance siren.

The sirens were barely audible in the tourist hub of Waikiki, prompting officials to add more sirens and reposition the ones already in place.

Hawaii officials apologised repeatedly for Saturday’s error and said the alert was sent when someone hit the live alert button instead of an internal test button during a shift change.

“Today is a day that most of us will never forget,” said Hawaii Governor David Ige.

“A day when many in our community thought that our worst nightmare might actually be happening. A day when many frantically tried to think about the things that they would do if a ballistic missile launch would happen.”

The agency did not have a plan for a false alarm in place, officials said.

Mr Ige called the mistake unacceptable “I am sorry for the pain and confusion it caused,” he said. “I, too, am extremely upset about this.”