Hawaiian Havoc

Modern War of the World and the Public’s Response


Photo Taken from Buzzfeed

Caroline VanDam and Emma Thompson

As our twenty-first century world advances, we find at times that we are still in an age of mystery and uncertainty. On a late Sunday evening in 1938, millions of Americans tuned in and listened to a radio broadcast about a Martian invasion. The broadcaster was the famous writer, producer and actor, Orson Wells. Although he was young, Orson had been in a hit radio program “The Shadow,” and while he had not planned to create a hoax to the American listener, what resulted was widespread panic and havoc across the entire country.

Shortly after eight a.m. local time on January 14th, an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency initiated his duties to practice an emergency alert to the public without actually sending it to the public.

The practice drill has been reinstated from its Cold War-era nuclear warning/tests. But through human error the alert in fact was sent out to many Hawaiian residents and tourists on their cellphones: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

A more detailed message was seen on television screens, “If you are indoors stay indoors. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building or lay on the floor.”

The false warning sparked a wave of panic as thousands of people, facing only minutes left to live, sought shelter and refuge while saying goodbye to their loved ones. The false alarm created terror and confusion during the 30 minute gap between the initial alert and the clarification of the message as a mistake.

While the broadcast of the H.G. Wells nineteenth century science fiction novel War of the Worlds by Orson Wells was not a planned hoax, the radio play was extremely realistic, employing sophisticated sound effect and announcing. “Professor Farell of the Mount Jenning Observatory detected explosions on the planet Mars. A large meteor has crashed into a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey.” Announcing from the crash site, “Good heavens something’s wiggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. First one, now another. They look like tentacles…. I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. The Martians have mounted walking war machines, firing “heat ray” weapons, releasing poisonous gas into the air. ‘Martian cylinders’ have landed in Chicago and St. Louis.”

Millions of listeners believed a real Martian invasion was underway. Terrified civilians jammed highways seeking escape from aliens and toxic gas. People begged police for gas masks, and asked utility companies to turn off power so the Martians wouldn’t see their lights. People believed it was the end of the world and prepared to die.

Fiction can often seem stranger than reality. In fact what may seem imaginary or invention may be closer to the truth. Even amid the realization and comfort that the Hawaiian alarm was false and far from the truth, the growing tensions between the US and North Korea has fueled real fears of a nuclear war. Many politicians and concerned citizens are encouraging serious negotiations to denuclearize for the good of all humanity. The controversy generated by both the “War of the Worlds” broadcast and the Hawaiian cell phone alert reinforces the need for more cautious process controls, elaborate safeguards and accountability. What made both situations worse was there was no state emergency agency for correcting the error, only a standing permission to send out a missile alert. There must be a false alarm alert both believable and immediate.

The Public’s Response by Emma Thompson

I interviewed my cousin, Chuck, and his fiancé, Carlie, on their experience with the false missile threat. These are their responses below. It is something that isn’t very easy to discuss, but it is something that it important to hear.
Preface : We don’t mind to share answers to these questions and talk about what we experienced, but we should start by saying that this was very real to us—and very scary. It’s hard to talk about, and still emotionally affects us. We partly chose to write this response together so that we could be in the same room when we wrote it.

1. Where were you when you received the emergency alert?
Chuck: Carlie and I were in bed sleeping. It came through around 8:00 am on a Saturday. The
alerts to both our phones woke us up.
2. What were your initial thoughts when you received it?
Carlie: My stomach dropped immediately, and I felt paralyzed. At work, I had previously received FAQs about the missile alert testing system the Hawaii DoD was starting to implement with the usual tsunami alert tests that take place on the first day of the month. I knew that we had 12-15 minutes before impact.
Chuck: At first I didn’t want to believe it was real, but instantly that feeling went away. I had to accept that it was real. The fact that it came to both our phones, the full caps text, and those heavy words “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” It still gives me chills.
3. What were people doing around you and what were their emotions?
Chuck: Carlie and I looked at each other and she asked me “What are we going to do?”. I didn’t know how to answer her question. After a moment of trying to think of things, I told her I didn’t think there was anything we could do, and that we needed to start calling our family members and saying goodbye with the time that we had left. We both knew we were about to die. This was the end. I don’t think I’ve ever been so terrified in my entire life.
We decided to evacuate over the mountain, and when we got outside we could see up and down the street families yelling and running around their cars, doors slamming. It was like one of those scenes in a movie.
Carlie: Within maybe two minutes of receiving the alert, I heard the door slam to the apartment above ours, then a vehicle speed up our driveway. Our neighbor’s quick action made the situation feel more visceral.Later in the day, I spoke with my neighbor, a retired school teacher from the island, who said she was on the tennis courts with her friends. She knew there was nothing to be done, so she kept playing. I definitely was not as accepting or clear-headed as some people I’ve talked to seemed to be.

4. Did you reach out to anyone? If so, who?
Carlie: I called my mom and repeated “I love you” over and over again before getting out that we
received alerts of an inbound ballistic missile to Hawaii.
Chuck: I called my parents and asked them to spread the word. At first I couldn’t get through to my mother, but I was able to reach my father and told him what was going on. It was hard not to get emotional on the phone and I started crying while I was explaining the situation. I tried to be clear and concise. I said that there was a missile inbound to Hawaii, that we had received an emergency alert, that we were making our way over the mountain but didn’t expect to survive and that I loved him very, very much.
5. Where did you go to take cover?
Chuck: We live close to one of the highways that goes up into the mountains, over to the other side of the island. After a minute of not thinking there was anything we could do, I decided that we could at least try to improve our chances of survival by putting the mountain between us and the city of Honolulu (which would also put the mountain between us and Pearl Harbor, which we surmised was the most likely target for historical reasons). We got dressed and threw together two bags very quickly…clothes, some food, wallets, phones, etc. We jumped into the car with our dog and headed up and over the mountain. Once through the mountain we were going to head down to a friend’s house on the other side of the island, but then thought better of it. We didn’t want to go back down to sea level in case the missile hit the water off the northern coast and caused a tsunami. We found a turn off from the main road for a hiking trail part-way up the mountain, and parked our car there.
Carlie: We reacted very quickly. We were out of the house within four minutes of receiving the alert and parked over the mountain within seven minutes of the alert. I was obsessed with time in that small 12-15 minute window before the missile made impact.
6. When you received the second notification about it being a false alarm, what was your
Chuck: Once parked we sat in the car and held each other and told each other how much we loved each other, and how much we appreciated that we were together. We kept checking our phones for news. It started on Twitter that people were saying it was a false alarm, but we couldn’t find an official source and were unwilling to entrust our lives to some random person on Twitter. After we were significantly past the time window where we would have expected an impact, we started to relax a little bit. Perhaps the missile had missed the island, or perhaps it had been shot down by the military.
Finally, the twitter account for the hawaii emergency management department posted that it was a false alarm. We were so shaken by the whole ordeal that we just sat in the car and held each other for a while longer. At this point we thought we were safe and believed it was a false alarm, but wanted to sit there a little longer to be safe. Shortly after, the second alert came in.
Carlie: My dad called me in the intervening time between receiving the first alert and the second alert 38 minutes later. Chuck’s dad had also started a text chain and sent us a report stating it was a false alarm. On the mainland, people already knew it wasn’t real, but as we were living it, I could not understand what had happened and why an official source wasn’t assuaging our fears.
Why did it take twelve minutes (the start of the impact window) for a government official to post a Twitter message? And more importantly, who thought that sending a correction on a social media site known for quick takes and the perpetuation of false information was an adequate response to blasting “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” across our phones and local television stations?
Chuck: Obviously we were glad to hear it was a false alarm, and it wasn’t even 9am yet on a beautiful Saturday morning in Hawaii. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We drove home and just sat together on the couch, sometimes talking, sometimes not talking, trying to process everything that had just happened.
Carlie: We weren’t sure how to even explain what we had gone through to other people. Nothing bad had actually happened, yet we lived through a nightmare for 38 minutes. Hearing the fear and heartbreak in your parent’s voice when you tell them you think you are going to die is something you can’t get out of your head. We’re so thankful it was a false alarm and that we were together when it happened. We aren’t irrevocably damaged and life goes on, but it is not pleasant at all to think or talk about.
7. What do you think about the situation now? Could it happen again?
Chuck: If the same alert arrived again, I would be out the door and heading over the mountain again. It’s too serious to not take dead seriously. This time we’d be more prepared with a pre-packed “go bag” and a more clearly articulated plan of action. One thing we genuinely worry about is if it’s during the work day and Carlie is at her office and I am at mine, how would we get together and get out of the city fast enough.
Carlie: As I understand the situation now, it was a comedy of errors that doesn’t have me laughing. I would still take another alert seriously, but my faith in institutions is seriously eroded. I can imagine a scenario in which the Hawaii Emergency Management System draws incorrect conclusions about the ordeal and overcorrects in the case of a real emergency. Human error was a significant problem here, but so was an outdated technological infrastructure, and I don’t see that being fixed any time soon.
8. Did you think this was real when it happened? How certain were you?
Carlie: North Korea has significantly stepped up missile testing and the president is keen to taunt. The media, both national and local, kept us reminded of both. For people on the mainland, it probably feels like a nearly impossible scenario. Before the false alarm, we had maybe one or two conversations about the possibility, but it wasn’t something we feared or thought actively about. However, when we received the EMS alert, we had no reason to doubt it, and doing so would have been foolish.
Technically, there should have been both broadcasts to our phones and televisions and sirens going off. We only received the alerts but did not hear sirens. While we were driving, I asked Chuck why there were no sirens. I speculated, ironically now, that perhaps, because the sirens were newly added to the emergency alert tests, that they just weren’t working. I thought it was very real until about 17 minutes after we received the alert. Once we were outside of the impact window, I thought either it wasn’t real, it was real but it was intercepted, or it was real and it went off course.
Chuck: I was certain this was real when it happened. People in Hawaii have been talking about it all year. Carlie has been given specific instructions by the state government for what to do in case of an attack. The state had started testing sirens specifically for use during a missile attack. With all the information in the news about North Korea and Trump and Kim Jong-un this all seemed completely plausible. I 100% believed that we had only a few minutes left to live, and looking into my partner’s eyes and telling her that was one of the worst things I have ever experienced in my life.
9. What changes did this cause in your lives?
Chuck: We had a long conversation after we got home. Actually many conversations over that day and the following week. One thing we asked each other is if this near-death experience made either of us want to make any changes in our lives. Did we like our jobs? Where we lived? Were we fulfilled?
I was pleased to confirm that I was actually very happy with the decisions I have been making about my life and what to do with it. I didn’t feel the need to make radical changes to get my life on track.
On the practical side, we talked about how we would handle something like this in the future, and came up with some specific plans. One thing I’d like to have is a fully-packed bag that is always ready to go.
Carlie: I don’t think it causes any long term changes to the way we think or the approach we will take to our lives. We still love living in Hawaii, and the chance of something like this actually happening is so miniscule as to not be a worry. However, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared for more general emergencies.
10. What thoughts did you have during the event (or after) that you haven’t put in another answer?
Chuck: I thought as I drove up the highway that even if we didn’t die in the next few minutes, our world was about to change forever. There is no scenario where someone drops a nuclear bomb on Hawaii that doesn’t forever change the global landscape. We were about to go to war and bomb the crap out of somebody in revenge, and we were probably looking at the end of the planet in nuclear fire.
Carlie: I thought about the coordination efforts that would go into place after the missile hit– how long it would take to get survivors off the island, who would show up, and how organized relief efforts would be. According to the Hawaii DoD, 90% of the state’s population would survive initial impact, so I was primarily concerned with what was going to come next.