Terrified Hawaii Residents & Vacationers Run for Cover
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Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii said the mistake was “totally inexcusable.”
“The whole state was terrified,” he said. “There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process.”
While the cellphone alerting system is in state authorities’ hands, the detection of missile launches is the responsibility of the United States Strategic Command and Northern Command. It was the military — not Hawaiian officials — that was the first to declare there was no evidence of a missile launch.
The false alert was a stark reminder of what happens when the old realities of the nuclear age collide with the speed — and the potential for error — inherent in the internet age. The alert came at one of the worst possible moments — when tension with North Korea has been at one of the highest points in decades, and when Mr. Kim’s government has promised more missile tests and threatened an atmospheric nuclear test.
During the Cold War there were many false alarms. William J. Perry, the defense secretary during the Clinton administration, recalled in his memoir, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” a moment in 1979 when, as an undersecretary of defense, he was awakened by a watch officer who reported that his computer system was showing 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles headed to the United States. “For one heart-stopping second I thought my worst nuclear nightmare had come true,” Mr. Perry wrote.
It turned out that a training tape had been mistakenly inserted into an early-warning system computer. No one woke up the president. But Mr. Perry went on to speculate what might have happened if such a warning had come “during the Cuban Missile Crisis or a Mideast war?”
The United States faces an especially difficult problem today, not just because of tense relations with North Korea but also because of growing fears inside the military about the cyber vulnerability of the nuclear warning system and nuclear control systems.
Because of its location, Hawaii — more than any other part of the United States — has been threatened by escalating tensions and the risks of war, and preparations have already begun there.
On Friday, the day before the erroneous alert, several hundred people attended an event in Honolulu sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce in which military commanders, politicians and others discussed the threat to the islands’ population.
“The U.S. is the designated recipient — and that’s because we are public enemy No. 1 to North Korea,” Dan Leaf, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and Pacific Command deputy commander, was quoted as saying in the Honolulu Star Advertiser.
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency has been holding “are you ready” drills. As a chain of islands, Hawaii is subject to all kinds of threats — hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis — but officials have made clear that none is more urgent now than the threat of an attack by North Korea, given how little time there would be between an alert and the detonation of a bomb.
The fifth page of an emergency preparation pamphlet issued by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency features a picture of a rocket lifting off: “Nuclear Threat — Unlikely But Cannot Ignore It.”
Vern T. Miyagi, the administrator of the agency, said that during the drill, an employee — whom he did not identify — mistakenly pushed a button on a computer screen to send out the alert, rather than one marked to test it. He said the employee answered “yes” when asked by the system if he was sure he wanted to send the message.
Mr. Miyagi, going through a detailed timeline of the events at an afternoon news conference, said the agency tried to correct the error on social media. It took 38 minutes to send out a follow-up message canceling the original alert, which he acknowledged was a shortcoming with the alert system that the agency would fix.
The panic that followed the alert — if relatively short-lived — gripped the islands. There were reports of people seeking shelter by parking their cars inside a highway tunnel that cuts through a mountain. When the announcement was rescinded, a digital highway sign read: “Missile alert in error: There is no threat.”
People in Hawaii tend to know what to do to protect themselves to threats of a tsunami or a hurricane. The prospect of nuclear annihilation was entirely new terrain.
“So this was the most terrifying few minutes of my LIFE!” Paul Wilson, a professor at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, said on Twitter. “I just want to know why it took 38 minutes to announce it was a mistake?!?”
Chris Tacker, a veteran who lives in Kealakekua, said the mistake had left her angry and frustrated.
“I didn’t know where to go,” she said. “Anyone try to dig a hole in lava? Good luck trying to build a shelter. I’m stocking my liquor cabinet.”
Still, she added, “If we don’t have our sense of humor about this, it’s all over.”
North Korea State Media Says Army ‘On Standby To Launch’
North Korea took its turn Saturday in the country’s escalating, back-and-fourth with President Trump with the state-run newspaper saying leader Kim Jung Un’s revolutionary army is “capable of fighting any war the U.S. wants.”
The assertion was made in an editorial that also states the Paektusan army is now “on the standby to launch fire into its mainland, waiting for an order of final attack.”
The editorial in North Korea on Saturday also said the U.S. “finds itself in an ever worsening dilemma, being thrown into the grip of extreme security unrest by the DPRK. This is tragicomedy of its own making. … If the Trump administration does not want the American empire to meet its tragic doom in its tenure, they had better talk and act properly.”
DPRK stands for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The editorial appears to be in response to a series of comments made by Trump in recent days, most recently Friday that the United States is “locked and loaded.”
The president’s recent comments are in response to Kim threatening a missile attack on U.S. territory Guam.
Trump, meanwhile, continues to pursue a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s purported development of a nuclear warhead that could reach the United States and other countries on an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The White House says Trump has a phone conversation Friday with Chinese President Xi Jinping in which the leaders reiterated their commitment to the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The president also saluted Xi for China’s recent United Nations vote to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea, in response the country’s escalating pursuit of nuclear weapons, according to the White House.
As the crisis has unfolded, Trump has alternated praising China for its help and chiding it for not doing more.
The White House says Trump also told Xi he looked forward to seeing him in China later this year.
During Trump’s phone conversation Friday with Xi, the Chinese leader also requested that the U.S. and North Korea tone down their recent rhetoric and avoid actions that could worsen tensions between the two nations, Chinese Central Television reported.
“At present, the relevant parties must maintain restraint and avoid words and deeds that would exacerbate the tension on the Korean Peninsula,” Xi was quoted as saying.
Trump has urged China to pressure North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program, which North Korea says is nearing the capability of targeting the United States.
China is the North’s biggest economic partner and source of aid, but says it alone can’t compel Pyongyang to end its nuclear and missile programs.
Trump also spoke this weekend with Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo, reassuring him that U.S. military forces stand ready to ensure the safety and security of the U.S. territory, a White House statement said.
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged Saturday to do “everything, to the best of my ability,” to protect his nation’s people as tensions escalate over North Korea’s plans to send missiles over Japan toward Guam.
On Friday, Japan’s Defense Ministry said it was deploying four surface-to-air Patriot interceptors in western Japan to respond to a possible risk of fragments falling from missiles.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
How Guam and Other Areas Are Preparing Amid Escalating North Korea Nuclear Tensions
As the war of words ratchets up between North Korea and Donald Trump, some cities and other areas within the zone of a possible strike are taking steps to prepare their residents.
While many pieces of the North Korean nuclear puzzle remain unknown, such as whether a rocket could survive reentry, as well as whether the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, will act, some localities are taking measured steps in that direction.
Officials in Hawaii and now Guam have released updated preparedness plans and warning sheets for how their citizens should react in case of a nuclear detonation or imminent missile threat.
The threat of possible missile attack, which North Korea has explicitly made against Guam, prompted the release of several fact sheets on a government website. Hawaiian officials also updated their guidance in recent weeks.
But many other American cities appear to be taking a more limited approach, pointing residents towards existing plans to address a wide array of natural and man made disasters.
Top U.S. officials have also urged calm, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said Americans should "sleep well at night."
How Guam is preparing residentsThe website for Guam's Homeland Security Office of Civil Defense has been updated recently with a number of fact sheets detailing the emergency alert system and giving tips on what to do before, during and after an imminent missile threat.
One of the fliers, "preparing for an imminent missile threat," instructs readers to listen for official information and emergency guidance, take cover, stay inside and not to look at the flash or fireball if caught outside in order to avoid being blinded.
The site also redirects visitors to websites run by the Centers for Disease Control and federal government sites dedicated to building emergency supply kits, tips for sheltering in place and preparing their pets for disasters.
On Wednesday, the offices of Guam Homeland Security and Civil Defense released a statement saying that their military partners "continue to monitor the recent events surrounding North Korea and their threatening actions."
The statement went on to say that Guam's homeland security adviser George Charfauros "has not received any statement that there is an imminent threat."
Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo told Reuters Wednesday after that threat was made that he thinks that North Korea is operating from "a position of fear."
"At this point, based on what facts are known, there is no need to have any concern regards heightening the threat level," Calvo said.
Today, Calvo held a briefing during which he said the preparedness releases were published for "eventualities," emphasizing that life should carry on as usual.
"It's a weekend. Go out and have fun," Calvo said.
Hawaii's updated guidance on what to do in event of detonationAnother American island -- Hawaii -- recently updated its guidance on what to do in case of a nuclear detonation, posted July 21 on Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. The substance of the revision was not immediately clear.
The revised plan details how a siren will sound or emergency alert systems will notify people of a nuclear detonation in addition to the observation of a "brilliant white light (flash)."
From there, people are directed to get inside, stay inside and stay informed via radio stations or small portable walkie-talkies.
The skyline of Honolulu is captured from a boat marina.The plan notes that there are no designated blast or fallout shelters in Hawaii.
"You may have only minutes to take protective action -- take immediate action without delay," the plan states.
The plan, which is on Hawaii State Department of Defense letterhead, is labeled as being revised on June 27. No motivation for the release or update was publicly disclosed on the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
ABC News reached out to the state's emergency management agency, but did not immediately get a response.
Ground-based interceptor system protects Alaska and continental U.S.The ground-based interceptor system is in place to defend Alaska and the mainland United States against long-range missiles.
There are 32 ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and an additional four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The missiles have just over a 50-percent success rate in intercepting incoming long-range missiles in testing over the past decade.
"[The interceptor] would have a hard time protecting Hawaii, but it would protect Alaska and the mainland,” ABC News Aviation Consultant Steve Ganyard, a retired Marine Corps colonel, said.
One problem, however, is that it “could not handle a barrage of 10 incoming missiles. It could pick off a few, but we're not there yet. It’s too developmental a system,” he added.
The emergency management office for Anchorage did not immediately respond to an ABC news request for comment.
The Alaska division of homeland security and emergency management does not have a specified nuclear preparedness plan and Anchorage, Alaska, takes an “all-hazards” approach which has also been adopted in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles in California.
“During the 1980s the United States government transitioned from the old Civil Defense 'fallout shelter' model of the Cold War-era, to the FEMA 'All Hazards' approach used today,” said Andrew Preis, the Emergency Programs Manager for Anchorage. “What that means to us here in Anchorage is the same preparedness activities undertaken for a large magnitude earthquake would also apply to a nuclear threat as well.”
West Coast tells residents to heed general emergency plansOn the mainland, several population centers on the West Coast repurpose their emergency plans for other disasters, whether they be natural like earthquakes or tsunamis, or man-made like terrorism and a nuclear attack.
The waterfront, the Space Needle, and downtown skyline is viewed from the Bainbridge Island Ferry, Nov. 4, 2015, in Seattle.more +Washington state does not have a specified nuclear detonation plan, with much of the state's focus being paid to possible earthquakes or tsunamis given the fault lines there.
"A nuclear strike certainly presents unique challenges but the state has exercised for and prepared for a variety of disasters and many of our response capabilities would be useful following a nuclear event," said Karina Shagren, the spokesperson for the Washington Military Department.
Officials in both Los Angeles and San Francisco take an "all hazards" approach to emergency planning.
"The situation with North Korea has understandably caused concern about what might happen if a nuclear strike targeted and reached the Los Angeles area," said Kate Hutton, public information officer for the City of Los Angeles Emergency Management Department. "We continue to closely monitor this situation as well as all threats and hazards we might face in Los Angeles."
A view of the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, the administrative and financial districts is captured.Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco, like most major metropolitan areas in the United States, have alert systems that residents can sign up for on their phones or via email.
"It's a very alarming possibility and it's concerning should something of this nature happen," Kristin Hogan, the spokesperson for the San Francisco department of emergency management, told ABC News.
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