How would Hawaii handle a real attack? False alarm gave us a glimpse

False missile alert spurs hysteria, panic in Hawaii
Published: Jan. 13, 2018 at 10:19 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 14, 2018 at 6:40 PM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - "A day most of us will never forget" is how Gov. David Ige described Saturday's false missile warning that triggered panic in the middle of the Pacific.

A wave of worry quickly washed over the islands Saturday morning as Hawaii residents were fearful for nearly 40 minutes that a nuclear attack was imminent.

At 8:07 a.m., an emergency alert blared on the cell phones of thousands of islands residents. Although the initial warning said "This is not a drill," many still questioned, "Is this real?"

After the initial shock subsided, the next question was, "What do we do now?"

For months, city, state and emergency officials have preached to Hawaii residents: Be prepared. But in a panic, it seemed no amount of preparation could ready anyone for the urgency that would soon ensue.

City officials echoed the reminder to "Get Inside. Stay Inside and Stay Tuned."

"We saw the public reacting very admirably in some cases, and in some cases with real fear and panic, not knowing what to do. And we should all know what to do," Honolulu Mayor Krik Caldwell said.

In the moments following the alert, Caldwell said the city's 911 call center was flooded with more than 5,000 calls in a short period of time.

Videos soon surfaced of students at UH Manoa literally running for shelter; a family helping kids into a street manhole for protection; and a trip to the grocery store that turned into a shelter-in-place mission for survival.

"We were actually terrified, and we didn't know what to do," Waikiki visitor Adnan Mesiwalahe 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."

There were also multiple reports of drivers speeding recklessly on Oahu freeways — likely rushing to get indoors to find a safe place.

City bus riders were abruptly removed from city transportation. Officials said at the time of the alert, there were roughly 320 buses and handivans on Honolulu roads with anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 passengers on board. Drivers were instructed to escort the passengers off and seek shelter, officials said.

"There was anxiety across the state and it was terrifying," U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said. "It undermines our ability to be prepared in case it were not a false alarm."

It took emergency officials exactly 38 minutes to clarify to the public it was a false alarm by sending out a follow up mobile alert. In an emergency where people have roughly 12 to 15 minutes to seek shelter, 38 minutes for clarification seems like an eternity.

There were questions that officials didn't immediately have answers to, and they promised to get to the bottom of it.

Officials pointed out it was a learning experience in many ways by outlining procedural changes, enhancing protocol and increasing community awareness — specifics which will emerge in the coming days and months.

Officials acknowledged nearly everyone in the state was affected by the scare in some way. For families, businesses, public officials and even local media outlets, the false alarm highlighted areas for improvement in the event of a real attack.

"I believe this situation brought out the best in people," Caldwell said. "It showed people helping neighbors and each other and their families. We may be a big city, but we're still a very close knit community."

• 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

This story will be updated.

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