Fear and confusion in Hawaii after false missile alert
Hawaii was briefly gripped by panic last week after a state employee accidentally sent a statewide emergency alert warning of an imminent ballistic missile strike. At about 8:05 a.m. on Saturday, Hawaiians received a message on their cellphones that said, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” There was never any threat, but it took 38 minutes for a correction to be sent, a terrifying gap during which many Hawaiians ran for cover and said tearful goodbyes. Matt LoPresti, a state representative, sought shelter with his family in a bathroom. “I was sitting in the bathtub with my children, saying our prayers,” he said.
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency later explained that an employee had mistakenly clicked the wrong option on a computer drop-down menu during a routine drill. The agency couldn’t immediately correct the error because it had no template to quickly issue retractions, a problem that has now been fixed. Going forward, the agency will require two employees to confirm any alert that is sent. The unnamed employee has been reassigned but not fired. “The system should have been more robust,” said agency administrator Vern Miyagi. “I will not let an individual pay for a systemic problem.”
What the columnists said
What Hawaiians suffered is bad enough, but this scare could have been so much worse, said Ankit Panda in TheAtlantic.com. With the U.S. and North Korea locked in a deadly staring contest, “nuclear anxieties are higher today than at any time since the end of the Cold War.” What if President Trump, who was golfing at Mar-a-Lago, “had seen reports of an attack on Hawaii and issued a valid retaliatory order”? That nightmare scenario is more plausible than it seems, said David Faris in TheWeek.com. In 1979, the U.S. nearly launched a massive strike on the Soviet Union after computers picked up an incoming missile attack. It turned out someone had accidentally inserted a simulation tape. “The history of the nuclear age is replete with near-misses.”
“If North Korea didn’t think we were itching to destroy it, it might be less likely to do something fatal,” said Alex Wellerstein in The Washington Post. President Trump’s nuclear saber rattling has only increased the likelihood that we’ll accidentally blunder into an unthinkable war. What happened in Hawaii should be a “wake-up call” to harden our emergency alert systems against possible tampering and human error. But we also need to lower the temperature on the Korean peninsula “to get us out of this war scare.”
In the meantime, we need a modern version of “duck and cover,” said Michael Brendan Dougherty in NationalReview.com. Nobody in Hawaii seemed to have any idea what to do; many simply assumed they were going to die, even though a single North Korean missile wouldn’t have killed everyone on the island or even in Honolulu. Americans need practical training about what to do during a real nuclear attack. “A little knowledge could save hundreds of thousands of lives.” ■