Governor pledges changes after false alert about inbound missile

Waikiki resident Vinicius Pereira, on first hearing the alert
Published: Jan. 13, 2018 at 1:27 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 15, 2018 at 5:38 AM HST
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(Image: Eris De La Cruz)
(Image: Eris De La Cruz)
When the alarm went off, Foodland Pupukea herded people into a food storage basement and locked...
When the alarm went off, Foodland Pupukea herded people into a food storage basement and locked the doors.
At Foodland Pupukea, shoppers waited in a food storage basement and locked the doors until the...
At Foodland Pupukea, shoppers waited in a food storage basement and locked the doors until the all clear was given.

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - This won't happen again.

That was Gov. David Ige's message Saturday, hours after a false ballistic missile threat alert went out to all cell phones in Hawaii.

The alert sent Hawaii's 1.4 million residents and hundreds of thousands of visitors into a state of panic for more than 30 minutes — until emergency officials confirmed the message was sent in error.

The cause of the false alarm? A state emergency management employee pushed the wrong button.

"I know firsthand that what happened today is totally unacceptable, and many in our community were deeply affected by this," Gov. David Ige said, at a news conference Saturday afternoon at the Hawaii Emergency Management agency.

"I'm sorry for that pain and confusion that anyone might have experienced. I, too, am very angry and disappointed that this happened."

While city and military officials took to social media within 15 minutes to quell fears and say the message was sent by mistake, it took state emergency management — which sent out the message in the first place — 38 minutes to send out a "false alarm" alert to cell phones using the same mechanism that distributed the emergency warning in the first place.

Flights at Honolulu's airport, meanwhile, were suspended for about 18 minutes.

"It's totally unacceptable," said U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. "There was anxiety across the state and it was terrifying. There was a lot of unnecessary pain and anxiety. It's important to have accountability at the state level and the emergency management level in terms of what exactly what went wrong."

Seconds after the alert was issued, 911 dispatchers were swamped with calls.

Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard said dispatchers answered about 3,000 calls before the alert was canceled, while about 2,500 calls were dropped.

Police were also able to confirm the message was a false alarm within minutes, Ballard said, and patrol officers used bullhorns on their vehicles to alert neighborhoods.

Firefighters, meanwhile, allowed dozens of people to shelter in place at fire stations until they could get more information.

Ige and the head of Hawaii's Emergency Management agency, Vern Miyagi, said the false alert was the result of human error — and boiled down to a state emergency management employee clicking the wrong message during a routine drill that happens three times a day during shift changes.

"We did make the determination that it was a false alarm. The alarm was sent out in error, and we know that the procedure in a shift change had been followed, and a human error sent out the false alarm," Ige told Hawaii News Now.

"We then went through our process to correct that and send out a notification that the alert was in error."

Miyagi added, "The wrong button was pushed. I deeply apologize for the trouble and heartbreak we caused today."

The false alarm sent Hawaii residents and visitors into a panic, scrambling for any shelter they could find, from storm drains to bathtubs to basements.

And in the wake of the error, lawmakers and others reacted with anger, and ongoing questions about how the state responded in the minutes after the false alarm was triggered.

• WATCH: Ige says false missile threat alarm was result of someone pushing wrong button
• Fear. Alarm. And tears. For 38 minutes, Hawaii thought it was under attack
• Lawmakers demand answers on false missile alarm and state's response
• Visitors were watching video of Pearl Harbor attack before false missile alert went off
• Here's what the state wants you to do if NKorea (actually) attacks Hawaii
• TIMELINE: False ballistic missile warning sends Hawaii into panic

"I was thinking, where do we go?" said Jack Hinano Delgado, who was manning a booth at the Pearlridge farmers market when the alert was sent. "Everybody's phones went off. Everyone looked at their phones. And within five minutes it was like a ghost town. We didn't know what to do, whether we should pack up. We were just waiting for more information."

Adnan Mesiwala, a visitor, said he and his family were on the 36th floor of a hotel when they got the alert.

"We were actually terrified, and we didn't know what to do," he said. "We were kind of frantic. We put the baby in the bathroom and didn't know what else to do. My wife was in tears."

The White House said in a statement that, "The President has been briefed on the state of Hawaii's emergency management exercise. This was purely a state exercise."

Meanwhile, the FCC said it was launching a "full investigation into the false emergency alert" sent to Hawaii residents.

Lawmakers said the error was unacceptable.

"I can't believe if someone pushed the wrong button accidentally that it would take 38 minutes to correct it," said U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, adding that her husband was on the highway when the alert was sent out and people started "driving 100 mph." "If this was for real, what do we have to say for our whole defense system?"

State Rep. Matt Lopresti said the Legislature would hold a hearing on the false alarm.

He told Hawaii News Now on Saturday morning that after getting the alert, he huddled in the bathtub with his children and "said our prayers trying to find out what the hell was going on."

The false alarm comes as Hawaii grapples with the real fear of a nuclear threat from North Korea.

In December, the state launched a campaign to educate the state on what to do if an attack is launched. Part of that education campaign was a monthly test of the Cold War-era attack warning siren.

Counties did not sound that siren Saturday, but several sirens on military bases did go off.

The phone alert, however, sent people scrambling for shelters and their cars — and online for additional news.

As people frantically called family and friends, cell phones were overloaded statewide. And within seconds of the alert going out, the Hawaii Emergency Management's website appeared to crash. It was back up by about 9:30 a.m.

U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii confirmed there was no missile threat about 15 minutes after the false alarm was triggered.

"USPACOM has detected no ballistic missile threat to Hawaii. Earlier message was sent in error," said Com. David Benham. "State of Hawaii will send out a correction message as soon as possible."

After the alert was declared an error, many decried the fact that such an incredible mistake was allowed to happen.

"Hawaii's civil defense system failed Hawaii's residents this morning," said state Sen. Will Espero, in a statement. "The checks and procedures in place to confirm and re-confirm the public notification process failed Hawaii."

This story will be updated.

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