“What happened today was totally unacceptable,” Hawaiian Governor David Y. Ige relayed to a terrified- and outraged- state, “many in our community were deeply affected by this. I am sorry for that pain and confusion that anyone might have experienced.”
2018 was barely two weeks old, and the people of Hawaii had already spent 38 minutes of it hiding in terror, in cupboards, under beds, holding their children close. They had all been the recipients of an alert message sent by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency at 8.10am that morning.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”, the message read. Mercifully, it was exactly that: a drill. It just wasn’t meant to be sent to the phones of civilians.
Following a brutal 38 minutes of radio silence, officials and agencies began posting official notices on social media correcting the mistake, declaring the alert a result of human error, not the work of hackers or a hostile government. Still, the damage had been done.
“We fully felt like we were about to die,” said Allyson Niven, a mother in Kailua-Kona, “I drove to try to get to my kids even though I knew I probably wouldn’t make it, and I fully was visualizing what was happening while I was on the road. It was awful.”
Ray Gerst was on holiday in Oahu with his wife; they were celebrating their 28th wedding anniversary. They received the alert as their bus turned into Kualoa Ranch as part of a tour. “All the buses stopped, and people came running out of the ranch and said, ‘Just sit still for a minute, nobody get off the bus, nobody get off the bus,’” Gerst said. They were taken in the mountains and dropped off at a concrete bunker, with no cell signal, for 15 gruelling minutes.
The administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, Vern T. Miyagi, held a press conference that afternoon, discussing a detailed timeline of the events that morning. He said the agency would try to fix the mistake, with three key measures in place: all future drills suspended until a proper analysis of the event, the institution of a two-person activation rule for tests, and a cancellation command that can be triggered within second of an error.
Still, it seems the damage to the agency’s reputation has been done. “So this was the most terrifying few minutes of my LIFE!” lamented Twitter user Paul Wilson, a professor at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, “I just want to know why it took 38 minutes to announce it was a mistake?!?”
What’s done is done, but the island simply cannot afford to have another false alarm. If the public trust sees its faith in government systems eroded beyond return, they are unlikely to be reachable when it really matters.