I was home, still asleep, on that recent Saturday morning in Hawaii when an emergency alert sound came screeching out of my cell phone. I peered at it and saw the scariest message I’ve ever received:
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
I’d read before that if North Korea fired a missile toward Hawaii, we would only have 15-20 minutes before impact. We leaped out of bed, and I quickly thought about how to make ourselves as safe as possible.
We closed all the windows against fallout and gathered some emergency supplies – electronics and chargers for communication and news (although I knew an electromagnetic pulse might destroy them), a hand-crank radio and some cases of La Croix sparkling water. We put them in the most protected part of our home, an inside hallway without windows or outside doors. Even at the time, I knew it was totally inadequate as a bomb shelter, but it was all we had.
It was only then, a few minutes after the alert when we were settled in the hallway with the doors closed around us, that I finally opened my iPhone’s NPR app to check the news. The station was airing regular programming, which made me realize it was unlikely we were having a missile crisis. My heartbeat slowed down a little.
I opened Facebook and saw that a friend from Hawaii who now works at the Washington Post had posted it was a false alarm, which had been confirmed by Hawaii State Representative Tulsi Gabbard. I took a deep breath of relief.
HAWAII – THIS IS A FALSE ALARM. THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE TO HAWAII. I HAVE CONFIRMED WITH OFFICIALS THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE. pic.twitter.com/DxfTXIDOQs
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) January 13, 2018
When the people of Hawaiʻi got this message yesterday, they were literally going through this feeling of "I've got minutes to find my loved ones, to say my last goodbyes, to figure out where could I possibly find shelter that would protect me from a nuclear attack." pic.twitter.com/5Qb7OteSpP
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) January 14, 2018
It turned out an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency selected the wrong computer screen pull-down item during a routine, internal drill. It was a long 38 minutes before the agency was able to send out another message correcting the error. The agency has since made multiple changes so that this won’t happen again.
New Hawaii residents quickly learn to turn on a television or radio when civil defense sirens sound because there’s likely a tsunami or hurricane approaching. There are also emergency alerts you can sign up to receive by text or phone. If you are moving to Hawaii, be prepared to respond quickly to the unexpected.
But if you are not well versed in nuclear missile threats, here are a few more things you should know:
- The official word is “Get inside, stay inside, stay tuned.”
- Once you receive an alert or hear the wailing siren signifying nuclear attack, you don’t have much time. Get inside immediately.
- Most critical is getting as far away from the roof and walls as possible. Concrete is better than wood, and a basement, if there is one, is better than above ground. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: “The heavier and denser the materials – thick walls, concrete, bricks, books, and earth – between you and the fallout particles, the better.” Turn off heating and cooling units. Stay well away from windows.
- If you’re driving, pull over and get inside a building – a commercial building or parking structure, if possible. If there’s nothing nearby, get behind something that might offer protection or lie flat on the ground and cover your head. Blast waves can take 30 seconds or more to hit from an explosion that’s at a distance.
- Don’t look at the flash or fireball; it could blind you. After the initial blast, loud explosion, and hurricane-force winds, take shelter inside as soon as possible; radioactive fallout can be carried hundreds of miles by winds.
- If you are exposed to radioactive particles, remove your outer layers of clothing and seal them away in plastic forever. Shower and wash your hair if you can, or at least brush it out.
- You should already have a disaster supplies kit; if you don’t, make one today. Include packaged food, water, a working radio, first aid kit, medicines, and other essential items for two weeks.
- It’s critical to shelter in place for at least 24 hours and possibly up to two weeks to reduce exposure to radiation. Fallout radiation poses its greatest risk during the first two weeks; at 14 days, it’s only about one percent of its initial radiation level. Stay put, either until advised it’s safe to leave or for 14 days.
And here’s some reassuring news, which I failed to remember on that scary Saturday morning: Missile defense systems in Korea, Japan and on American warships in the Pacific would possibly intercept any ballistic missiles headed this way.
Most of all, remember that a nuclear missile attack would not be the end of it all.
“Remind people that our society can and would survive a single bomb from a rogue nation or a terrorist organization, even though that would certainly be an overwhelming, unprecedented tragedy,” Irwin Redlener wrote in a Time magazine article called This is What You Should Do During a Nuclear Alert.
He is director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health, co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund and a special adviser to the mayor of New York City.
“The fact is that we are not facing an apocalyptic obliteration of ‘life as we know it,’” he said, “as was the case during the Cold War stand-off between mighty nuclear powers.”