An electronic sign reads ‘There is no threat’ in Oahu after a false emergency alert that said a ballistic missile was headed for Hawaii. Photograph: Social Media/Reuters
An alert about an incoming ballistic missile sent Hawaii into panic for about 30 minutes on Saturday, until emergency officials announced that the message had been sent in error.
The alert, which was sent to cellphones, said there was a threat “inbound to Hawaii” and said residents should seek shelter. “This is not a drill,” it added.
Hawaiian authorities have been preparing and testing early warning systems, and residents have been urged to make emergency plans.
“Everyone’s got a plan,” said Ashly Trask, 39, who lives on the island of Kauai. “It’s very real.”
Trask’s home, like many on the islands, is constructed with single-ply walls and has no basement. When the alert came, Trask said, she piled her mother, 15-year-old son, two-year-old daughter and partner into the car, swung by her other son’s workplace to pick him up, and then sped to her office at the botanical gardens: a building with concrete walls that is used as a hurricane shelter.
“It was definitely kind of a panic zone,” she said. “Everyone knows you have about 15 minutes until detonation, and no one knows where it will land.”
Family members on the other side of the island were too far away to get to the gardens within that short timespan.
“They called us and they were crying because they realized they wouldn’t have made it to us,” Trask said.
In western Oahu, people ran out of buildings into the streets. According to a witness, some took shelter in the basement of a parking structure, where people cried and children huddled on rolls of fabric.
Approximately 30 minutes later, authorities said the alert was a mistake.
Many in the parking shelter hugged, cried, shook and prepared to head back outside. Others said they would remain undercover until they received confirmation from the coast guard that all was safe.
Honolulu resident Kim Smith told the Guardian she went to Diamond Head, a state park and former military base which “is a congregation place for a tsunami” and has “bunkers and tunnels”.
Tourists, Smith said, were walking around “with no idea what was going on at all”.
“We ended up sitting outside in the car and waiting to see what would happen,” she added. “They started the missile siren system back up a couple of months ago and the sirens weren’t going off and there were no updates on the radio so it was a bit confusing.
“It was 20 minutes before the text came though saying it was a false alarm, which is quite a long time.”
Hawaii governor David Ige told CNN the false alarm was caused by human error. “It was a mistake made during a standard procedure at the change over of a shift, and an employee pushed the wrong button,” he said.
The alert came as Oahu staged a 100-mile endurance run, the HURT100. Some runners sheltered under a bridge before resuming racing.
Beth Ann Brooks of Haleiwa told the Guardian she was at the beach when she received the alert and raced home. She and her husband sheltered in their bathroom, she said.
“We grabbed couch cushions and our hurricane kit and water and sat there talking to the kids and trying to calm them down,” Brooks said. “They didn’t say much. It was horrible. The fear I felt was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
The US congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard tweeted that the alert was an error, writing: “HAWAII – THIS IS A FALSE ALARM. THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE TO HAWAII. I HAVE CONFIRMED WITH OFFICIALS THERE IS NO INCOMING MISSILE.”
A White House statement said Donald Trump had been “briefed on the state of Hawaii’s emergency management exercise”.
For some, the prospect of the end of the world was an opportunity to indulge. Joshua Keoki Versola was home alone in Mililani when he received the alert. As he waited for his fiancee to drive home from her place of work, the 35-year-old network engineer opened a bottle of Hibiki 21, an award-winning and expensive Japanese whisky.
“I was about to start pouring drinks and go out in style,” Versola said “What are we going to do in this situation? We really can’t do anything but just try and make the best of it.”
- Additional reporting by Bonnie Malkin