On Saturday January 13, 2018, my brother called me from the bathroom of his home outside Hilo on the Island of Hawai’i (the Big Island). An emergency alert warning of an imminent missile attack had appeared on his cellphone. The warning said this was not a drill and to seek shelter. The local TV station also aired the warning.
My brain struggled to absorb the information as I listened to him say that he called our parents who lived a few miles away and told them to hunker down in their bathroom. I wondered why my brother, who is not a funny guy, chose to dive into the world of pranks with such an elaborate ruse, but I played along. “So, what, the North Korean dude is gonna nuke you?” I said with just a hint of sarcasm. Instead of laughing, my brother replied, “I think so.”
“Let me get online and I’ll call you back,” I said, determined to figure out what the hell was going on. The emergency missile alert was now staring back at me from the screen of my cellphone in northern California. So this was what a missile alert looked like. All caps, but no exclamation points.
I turned on CNN. Regular programming. Nothing made sense. I ran to the backdoor and called for my husband. He was listening to a local Big Island radio station (KAPA) as he did yard work. He heard the missile alert, but when the station returned to music, he assumed it was a mistake.
We looked up to see the CNN talking head had a banner below him that said the missile alert was an error. There was no missile headed to the state where all but few of my family lived. I called my brother back, but it was only after I texted him a screenshot of the CNN broadcast that he felt sure enough to emerge from his bathroom. His text reply, “ty,” told me he could finally breathe.
My mom, 77 years young, had already heard about the false alarm and chuckled when I called her. I was relieved that she could laugh and that she and my 79-year-old dad didn’t stroke out or have heart attacks during the alarm. My mom said she packed a bag when she saw the alert on her TV. I’m not sure what to think about that.
It seemed like most of the country spent the next day processing what happened the morning of January 13th. An employee of the Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency had simply neglected to press the “drill” button during a standard shift-change exercise. Although the agency notice recalling the alert reached Facebook and Twitter, another glitch in the system delayed (for 38 minutes) the notice to cellphones. The agency has already instituted a two-person sign-off before the alarm is sent again.
The movie (in my head) plot did not occur – the Russians did not hack into our systems to get our country to fire back at North Korea under the mistaken presumption that North Korea had fired a missile at Hawai’i. But the damage has been revealed. What happened on January 13th made me think back to my school days in Hawai’i when monthly air raid sirens sounded and we all got under our desks. January 13th brought me back to the days of the Cold War when terms like “balance of power” and “detente” appeared in daily newspapers. Instead of the USA and the USSR, the players are now the USA and North Korea, with Russia looming in the background poised to act as puppeteer. And with no love lost between our country and nations around the world, North Korea might not be the only nation that could be goaded into starting a nuclear war with us.
January 13th happened. The scare was real. But I can’t live like the threat of nuclear annihilation is imminent. I’m not stupid, and I’m not choosing to bury my head in the sand. You see in the world and others what is inside yourself. I see a sane world where goodness prevails, so I have hope.
©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2018.