On Saturday, January 13th, as guests I had invited to join me on a whale watch in Kona were excitedly preparing to board the boat, my phone started shrilly sending out an alarm. We knew Civil Defense had already sent out a high surf warning via email and through the radio earlier in the day, so we thought that perhaps the surf was continuing to build. When I looked down at the alert, the first thing I saw was BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT. “WHAT!?” I thought. Then I continued to read, “INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.”..When I got this far in the message, I was remembering seeing my friend Karen sitting at an Emergency Management meeting the day before about dealing with the threat of a nuclear war. When I saw her sitting in that meeting, I was thinking, “Are you kidding? What are the odds of us getting attacked by North Korea?” Then I saw on my phone screen the ominous conclusion to the message. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
This moment was marked by three things simultaneously.
Someone’s head was going to roll in the Emergency Management Agency.
Where is my family right now?
Where the heck do you take shelter in Kona from an inbound missile?
I didn’t want to panic because I just felt that the whole concept didn’t feel right. So I showed it to my friends who were leading the boat tour. The boat Captain, assured us that if it were real, we would be hearing the tsunami sirens that have been rejiggered to also send out nuclear attack warning sounds. (Yes, this is true) Then he said someone must have hacked the system and it must be false. Just then our last guests arrived and said the alert was playing on all the radion stations. It got pretty real at that point.
What would YOU do when all of a sudden you are confronted with a message that says you basically have 15 minutes to live? Well, I called my husband (he was out running without his phone and he NEVER found out what happened until it was over) and my daughter, who also was not answering her phone. Then I asked my friends on Facebook should I be terrified..in that light..”ha ha..hey, I know this is a joke..but I could be dying here pretty soon and I would love someone tell me something different right about now.”
Meanwhile, three people from the charter said they were not going out on the boat in middle of a statewide crisis as they were Red Cross volunteers. Amp up the foreboding background music.
With my husband and children not answering their phones, and my friends deciding to stay with the boat, conversation turned to, “Well..we are pretty much helpless at this juncture. So, if a missile is in fact on its way, we should be out on the ocean enjoying our last few minutes.”
Meanwhile, my friend and her children were sheltering in their bathroom crying in the bath tub together. A man was lowering his child down into the Honolulu sewer system. Another friend was Facetiming her daughter in Norway while they both were sobbing thinking one was about to watch the other die. Dozens of people showed up at the local hospital and fire stations looking for shelter. Families were holding their children while they cried together. A woman at my local coffee shop, Lava Java, didn’t want to leave her job, so her husband and children came to the coffee shop so they could be together.
It was 15 minutes of everyone in the state of Hawaii finding out what was important to them.
My friends and I all pretty much agreed that we had led successful and happy lives and that if our time was up, we were ready. That was a pretty powerful feeling. That I am not afraid to die and that I would leave with no regrets. (Although the next morning, I stopped into my local grocery store and bought the family apple fritters and Danishes, because, I realized I don’t do that very often and now that I got a new lease on life, I wanted more pastries in my life!)
When the news came that the warning message was in fact, an error, I was watching a whale breach in front of the boat. We went on to see over 12 whales with one hovering about 12 feet in the water below us. It was awesome. And even more magical because I was still alive to see it. You can bet my family got extra hugs and we put together a plan for reaching each other in case of an emergency.
In the days since the “episode”, we have learned what happened and the stories and fall out surrounding this horrific experience.
I read today that the Emergency Management Agency is getting death threats and the Wall Street Journal is flabbergasted at such incompetence from the agency and the silence from someone who should have said something sooner. What I have also seen is people making disaster preparedness steps with more conviction. I have also seen people posting on Facebook messages such as, “I realized in those 15 minutes that I had not taken the time to tell people I cared about that I loved them. I am doing that today.”
This whole experience will go down in the emergency management annals “Hall of Shame”, but it also woke up quite a few people to the very real threat we feel and what should we do about that AND how tomorrow feels after almost not being granted another day in our lives. One of my friends compared it to how those poor souls trapped above the plane impact zones during the 9/11 attack felt. Or how people cowering with their familes felt in the London under ground during World War II. It was awful.
Some people have called and asked how I am..I say, “I’m ALIVE!” and that is pretty awesome.
I remind everyone, we don’t always get tomorrow. Over 1 million people are thinking about that right now in Hawaii. I invite you to think about it, as well.