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Missile-threat alert that strikes fear in Hawaii turns out to be false alarm

By Amy B. Wang
The Washington Post

January 14. 2018 3:53AM
An electronic sign reads "There is no threat" in Oahu, Hawaii, after a false emergency alert that said a ballistic missile was headed for Hawaii, in this January 13, 2018, photo obtained from social media. (Instagram/@sighpoutshrug/via REUTERS)

Emergency alerts sent to the cellphones of Hawaii residents Saturday warning of a "ballistic missile threat" were a false alarm, officials said. Nevertheless, the messages, reportedly sent by mistake, alarmed those in a state where fears of an attack by North Korea have been heightened in recent months.

Shortly after 8 a.m. local time Saturday, several Hawaii residents began posting screenshots of alerts they had received, reading: "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."

At least 10 minutes went by with no official word or follow-up. At 8:20 a.m. local time, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted there was no missile threat to the state.

The Navy also confirmed in an email to The Washington Post the emergency alerts had been sent in error.

At 8:45 a.m. local time, an additional alert was sent to Hawaii residents advising them that the first warning had been a false alarm.

"There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii," the follow-up alert read, according to screenshots of the message. "Repeat. False Alarm."

Dorothea Tsipopoulos, a Manchester native, has lived in Honolulu for 22 years working in the state's probation department as a social worker.

A screen capture from the Twitter account of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) shows a missile warning for Hawaii in this image taken from social media. Tulsi Gabbard/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

"I saw this thing on my phone. I thought is this serious? Is it a hijack? What is going on? I called one of my friends. She said, 'Get away from your windows.' I went into the bathroom with water, phone and a book," Tsipopoulos said.

Houses in Hawaii don't have basements so it's difficult for residents to find a reinforced structure, she said.

"I called my sister here in New Hampshire and she hadn't heard anything. That made me wonder if it was real. I told her, 'Well, if this is it for me, don't be too sad; just live your life.'?"

"It was traumatic because there was enough time for you to panic. Soon after that I got a text from my friend that it was a mistake."

Andrew Kennedy, also a Manchester native, lives in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii and he worried about nuclear fallout from any attack on Hawaii's capital.

"Definitely the toughest part of this was dealing with whether it was real. You were just dumbfounded by it all for a while," said Kennedy who works as a defense lawyer.

"Then we saw the tweet from (U.S. Rep.) Tulsi Gabbard that it was false so we could breathe a whole lot easier."

Gov. David Ige tweeted Saturday: "While I am thankful this morning's alert was a false alarm, the public must have confidence in our emergency alert system. I am working to get to the bottom of this so we can prevent an error of this type in the future."

Less than two months ago, Hawaii reinstated its Cold War-era nuclear warning sirens amid growing fears of an attack by North Korea. Tests of the sirens were scheduled to be conducted on the first business day of every month for the foreseeable future. 

The siren tests were an audible example of the growing strife with North Korea, which has spooked other communities in the still-hypothetical line of fire. Guam distributed a pamphlet on nuclear attack preparedness that encouraged people to avoid using conditioner, "as it will bind the toxins to your hair." A 16-page bulletin released by emergency management authorities in California warned people to be wary of radioactive pets.

Richard Rapoza, a spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said Saturday that someone mistakenly triggered the cellphone and television alert during a shift change.

"We rely on the ability of the public to believe in us. Our credibility is vital and we are going to do whatever we can to make sure this never happens again," Rapoza said. "We should have been able to cancel the alert immediately. It shouldn't have taken that long."

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, acknowledging the heightened tensions, condemned the wayward cellphone messages and vowed to investigate how such a mistake occurred.

"At a time of heightened tensions, we need to make sure all information released to the community is accurate," Hirono tweeted Saturday. "We need to get to the bottom of what happened and make sure it never happens again."

Even as information was scarce, there were calls on Twitter for anyone who was responsible for sending the message in error to be held accountable.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said the false alarm was based on "a human error."

"There is nothing more important to Hawai'i than professionalizing and fool-proofing this process," Schatz tweeted Saturday.

He added in a subsequent tweet: "What happened today is totally inexcusable. The whole state was terrified. There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process."

Union Leader reporter Kevin Landrigan contributed to this story.

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