Many still rattled over missile-alert mistake

The Associated Press

HONOLULU–When Jonathan Scheuer got an alert on his phone of a ballistic missile headed for Hawaii, he and his family didn’t know what to do.
They went to their guest bedroom, then decided it would be safer on the ground floor of their Honolulu home.
“What do we do?” he wondered. “Where do we go?”
People immediately should seek shelter in a building “or other substantial structure” once an attack-warning siren sounds, according to guidance the state distributed previously.
The state recommends having 14-day survival kit of food and water.
Residents and tourists alike remained rattled a day after the mistaken alert was blasted out to cellphones across the islands with a warning to seek immediate shelter and the ominous statement: “This is not a drill.”
“Clearly there is a massive gap between letting people know something’s coming and having something for them to do,” Scheuer said yesterday.
“Nobody knew what to do.”
Lisa Foxen, a social worker and mother of two young children in east Honolulu, said the best thing to come out of the scare was that it pushed her family to come up with a plan if there is a real threat.
“I kind of was just almost like a deer in headlights,” she admitted. “I knew what to do in a hurricane. I knew what to do in an earthquake.
“But the missile thing is new to me.”
The blunder that caused more than a million people in Hawaii to fear that they were about to be struck by a nuclear missile fed skepticism yesterday about the government’s ability to keep them informed in a real emergency.
“My confidence in our so-called leaders’ ability to disseminate this vital information has certainly been tarnished,” said Patrick Day, who sprang from bed when the alert was issued Saturday morning.
“I would have to think twice before acting on any future advisory.”
The erroneous warning was sent during a shift change at the state’s Emergency Management Agency when someone doing a routine test hit the live alert button, state officials said.
They tried to assure residents there would be no repeat false alarms. The agency changed protocols to require that two people send an alert and made it easier to cancel a false alarm–a process that took nearly 40 minutes on Saturday.
The error sparked a doomsday panic across the islands known as a laid-back paradise. Parents clutched their children, huddled in bathtubs, and said prayers.
Students bolted across the University of Hawaii campus to take cover in buildings. Drivers abandoned cars on a highway and took shelter in a tunnel.
Others resigned themselves to a fate they could not control and simply waited for the attack.
An investigation into what went wrong was underway yesterday at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which sets rules for wireless emergency alerts sent by local, state, or federal officials to warn of the threat of hurricanes, wildfires, flash flooding, and to announce searches for missing children.
The state of Hawaii “did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement, calling the mistake “absolutely unacceptable.”
“False alerts undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies,” he warned.