False alert sent in Hawaii highlights preparations for missile launch

Last Updated Jan 14, 2018 9:19 AM EST

At a press conference hours after a false alert about a ballistic missile was sent, the administrator of Hawaii Office of Emergency Management (HI-EMA) said his team had been preparing for the worst-case scenario for months. "The threat is there," said Vern Miyagi. 

Just after 8 a.m. on Saturday, an alert was sent to mobile phones and televisions warning of an incoming ballistic missile heading toward the island. Although the alert was determined to be sent in error shortly afterward, many scrambled for shelter and called loved ones to say goodbye.

Martha McKinnon, a teacher in Kailua, told CBSN "when you really see ballistic missile coming, this is not a drill, it's nothing like you can imagine." 

Hawaii Mistaken Missile Alert

This smartphone screen capture shows a false incoming ballistic missile emergency alert sent from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency system on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018.

Caleb Jones / AP

Miyagi said that on Saturday at approximately 8:05 a.m., a routine test was initiated during a shift change. Although Miyagi said there is a message "are you sure you want to send," it was sent anyway. In the future, Miyagi said, there will be two people to push that alert button. There will also be a cancellation message implemented.

The alert was sent to the Emergency Alert System, the Wireless Emergency Alert but not the sirens, although some sirens did go off. Hawaii Gov. David Ige said there will be an investigation into why the sirens sounded.

Miyagi emphasized that he regrets Saturday's error, but he said "it brings the awareness up to this level."

As North Korea has said it has nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that can reach Hawaii, the state last month revived its Cold War-era siren system for an incoming attack.

"We believe that it is imperative that we be prepared for every disaster, and in today's world, that includes a nuclear attack," Ige said in Nov.

Miyagi said Saturday that if the alert is sent in the "actual event," there will be 12-14 minutes before the impact. He said Hawaii doesn't have fallout shelters, and even if there were any, residents probably wouldn't have time to reach them.

"Try and put as much concrete, brick, reinforced material between you and the blast. That's what you try to do," Miyagi said. He also warned that if you are indoors, to stay indoors. If you are outside, try to take shelter indoors and don't stay in a car.

It's estimated 90 percent of people on Oahu would survive the direct effects of the blast, according to CBS Honolulu affiliate KGMB.

After the blast, officials said, you should be prepared to remain sheltered for 14 days — or until you're told it's safe to come out. Household emergency kits should be stocked with at least two weeks of food, water and supplies.

The false alarm sent Hawaii residents and visitors into a panic, scrambling for any shelter they could find, from storm drains to bathtubs to basements, KMGB reports.  

"I was thinking, where do we go?" Jack Hinano Delgado told KMGB. He was manning a booth at the Pearlridge farmers market when the alert was sent. "Everybody's phones went off. Everyone looked at their phones. And within five minutes it was like a ghost town. We didn't know what to do, whether we should pack up. We were just waiting for more information."

Visitor Adnan Mesiwala told KMGB he and his family were on the 36th floor of a hotel when they got the alert.

"We were actually terrified, and we didn't know what to do," he 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."

The White House said Saturday that President Trump was briefed at Mar-a-Lago about the false alert. A White House official told CBS News the alarm was "purely a state exercise."