After false missile alert, some Hawaii businesses threw customers out

Businesses criticized for turning people away after false missile alert (10p)
Published: Jan. 14, 2018 at 11:30 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 15, 2018 at 2:35 PM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - For 38 minutes on Saturday, Hawaii residents and visitors scrambled for any shelter they could find, fearing a ballistic missile was inbound.

And while many businesses welcomed people and offered them refuge, others did not. There were several reports of businesses kicking customers out of stores and locking their doors, raising questions about what companies should do in the event of such a threat.

Dean Sensui said that's exactly what happened at Pearl City Walmart.

He and his family headed there after the false alarm was sent out about 8:07 a.m. Saturday. Once there, he was turned away.

"It's pretty appalling, that kind of behavior," he said. "Here's a community that supports the store and then turns their back on them when they need them the most. What kind of conscience is that? Who does something like that?"

In a statement to Hawaii News Now, Walmart apologized for telling customers to leave after the alert was sent and said it's reviewing its procedures to "help ensure all of our associates are prepared for any similar situations in the future."

"We can't imagine the panic, chaos and fear that Hawaii residents, including our associates and customers, experienced during the false emergency alert," said Delia Garcia, senior director of communications for Walmart, in an emailed statement.

"Our store and club associates are trained to respond to a broad range of emergency situations and, despite the unprecedented nature of this alert, their quick response helped many people find immediate shelter inside our buildings. We understand that in the confusion some associates may have misunderstood the direction and evacuated customers rather than sheltering in place. For this we apologize."

At 24 Hour Fitness on Kapiolani Boulevard, customers were also told to leave.

Niki Chan said she was exercising when the alert came in, and workers pushed everyone out.

"I didn't know what was going on," she said. "They sent me home, they kicked us out, and I just left."

Tyler Willis told Hawaii News Now a similar story.

He said he was at the UHaul on Nimitz Highway returning a rental when the alert came in.

"I tried to stop one of the employees (and ask if) I could take shelter because I didn't have any transportation back to my 2-year-old daughter and fiancee," he said. "She told me, 'You can't take shelter in our office.'"

So, Willis said, he sat in the parking lot at UHaul with a few other people "looking into the sky waiting for the missile to hit land."

The examples illustrate the chaos and panic that the alert triggered.

And two days after the false alarm went out, questions still linger about how it happened — and federal and state authorities have pledged investigations.

The Hawaii Department of Emergency Management said the employee who pushed the "wrong button" and sent out the alert during a shift change has been reassigned. He is a 10-year veteran of the agency.

Meanwhile, the department confirmed Sunday that it had been receiving death threats.

"We understand that members of our community are angry about Saturday's false alarm, and we are looking at these messages as individuals blowing off steam," a spokesperson said. "While we take any threat against our personnel seriously, we are doing our best not to escalate the situation."

The alert that went out to all Hawaii cell phones was nothing less than terrifying: "Missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill."

And it took state officials 38 minutes to sent a correction, though authorities took to social media within 15 minutes to debunk the alarm.

Within seconds of the mistake, scenes of terror and helplessness spread across Hawaii as people flocked to find shelter. People huddled in their bathtubs. They ran into businesses or rushed into basements. They got into storm drains.

In Manoa, the Durkin family huddled into an underground bunker that was built in their home after Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

"We just started throwing supplies into the bomb shelter and closed the top and got on our phones to look for updates," said Paraluman Stice-Durkin.

"We ran and I was totally freaking out," added her 13-year-old son Mati Durkin.

• 'Terrifying': False ballistic missile threat sends Hawaii into panic
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• WATCH: Ige says false missile threat alarm was result of someone pushing wrong button
• Here's what the state wants you to do if NKorea (actually) attacks Hawaii
• TIMELINE: False ballistic missile warning sends Hawaii into panic
• Lawmakers demand answers on false missile alarm and state's response

Gov. David Ige has promised the episode won't be repeated.

He explained the 38-minute window until a correction was sent this way: "There was no automated way to send a false alarm notification. We have to initiate a manual process, which is why it took a while to notify everyone."

On Sunday, Ige again apologized to residents and visitors and sought to reassure the state. "Steps have already been taken by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency to ensure that a situation of this type never happens again," he said.

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