Hawaii Residents Get Another False Alarm… But There’s Something Even Worse

Do you recall the news story from last year when many Hawaii residents received alerts on their phones and TVs?

It read: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill…”

Hawaiians still remember it very well. And they recently experienced some déjà vu when they received yet another alert about an incoming tsunami. More on that in a moment.

The ballistic missile warning was very believable for most residents. That’s because North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un had made several verbal threats against Hawaii.

Test Alert Gone Bad

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency had tried to start an internal test of the emergency missile warning system.

It’s a normal exercise allowing the agency to practice sending an emergency alert to the public. Without actually sending it.

But instead of hitting the “Test missile alert” button, the employee hit the “Missile alert” button. Television viewers in Hawaii received an even more detailed version of the alert. It said:

“If you are indoors, stay indoors. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building or lay on the floor.”

Threat Seemed Real

Not surprisingly, many people panicked. It took 38 minutes before a second wireless alert let folks know the warning was a mistake.

That may have been the longest 38 minutes of many Hawaiians’ lives. The Google search for “how to survive a nuclear attack” was one of the top searches by Hawaii residents following the scare.

And no wonder. It’s estimated that a missile from North Korea could reach Hawaii in approximately 20 minutes.

And it would have the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of people. And sicken the ones who survive if they didn’t have potassium iodide tablets on hand.

Tsunami Siren Scare

Now, a tsunami is not the same kind of threat as a ballistic missile. But, as with the North Korean threat, it is still a very realistic and catastrophic scenario. It can affect thousands, destroy homes and communities, and cut off power and food supply lines.

In 2011, a tsunami in Japan following an earthquake resulted in more than 15,000 deaths, over 6,000 injures and more than 2,500 people missing.

The devastation affected many of the country’s agricultural and fishery areas. The nuclear crisis that followed from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant also ironically leaked radioactive contamination into the food supply.

So naturally, Hawaii residents were very concerned when they heard sirens going off across Oahu and on Maui recently. Thankfully, those sirens were activated inadvertently and occurred during a Honolulu Police Department training.

The National Weather Service in Honolulu quickly rectified the error with a tweet. It read: “There is no tsunami threat. There is no reason to be alarmed. Repeat… no cause for alarm.”

Human Error Will Never End

A number of Hawaii residents expressed anger over this recent scare. One said, “What is going on with this department. And what is it going to take before the government does its job and fixes it?”

Another said, “I am alarmed that our emergency alarm is going off and it’s not an emergency. Haven’t you guys caused enough trouble with these false alarms?”

Still another said, “When mistakes like this happen, you belittle the importance and meaning of the warning.”

Now, I understand why people were upset. I’m sure I would have been also. But Hawaii isn’t the only place where false alarms cause people to take cover.

As long as human beings are running things, mistakes like these are going to happen. And unfortunately, the more false warnings there are, the more unlikely people will be to believe the next real one.

No Alarm Worse Than False Alarm

But there’s something even worse than a false alarm. And that’s when alarms don’t go off and alerts don’t get sent when they’re supposed to.

Such as what happened earlier this month in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Because a 911 dispatcher failed to follow protocol, only one-quarter of the city heard tornado warning sirens.

Three tornadoes touched down and winds reached more than 100 miles per hour. But only a portion of the 77 horns in the siren system were activated.

And once again, Sioux Falls isn’t the only place where this has happened. Similar failures have occurred in Cleveland, Ohio; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Daytona, Florida; and Belton, Missouri.

System Failures Common

Ben Smilowitz is the executive director at the Disaster Accountability Project in Washington, D.C.

He said that warning system failures are common. He added that the problem is usually a lack of emergency management oversight from local jurisdictions.

“It’s often not taken seriously enough until something actually happens,” Smilowitz said.

“Drills and preparedness events are usually intended to address these types of things.

“So having a drill every once in a while to see if some sirens work is pretty standard.”

The Lesson Is to Prepare

So, what’s the lesson for us? The lesson is to sign up for alerts, but don’t count on them to save you.

Be prepared for an emergency by having a plan. And by having the supplies you and your family will need to get through a crisis.

If you can do that, you’ll be ready for the next warning… whether it’s real or a mistake.

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