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Hawaii officials say 'NO missile threat' amid emergency alerts

Dusk in Honolulu, Hawaii, Feb. 12, 2007. As tensions between the United States and North Korea continue to simmer, Hawaii will start a statewide test on Dec. 1, 2017, of a Cold War-era early warning system designed to inform its residents of an impending nuclear attack. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times Copyright 2018 New York Times)

Emergency alerts sent to the cellphones of Hawaii residents Saturday warning of a "ballistic missile threat" were a false alarm, officials said. Nevertheless, the messages, reportedly sent by mistake, alarmed those in a state where fears of an attack by North Korea have been heightened in recent months.

Shortly after 8 a.m. local time Saturday, several Hawaii residents began posting screenshots of alerts they had received, reading: "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."

At least 10 minutes went by with no official word or follow-up. At 8:20 a.m. local time, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted there was no missile threat to the state.

The Navy also confirmed in an email to The Washington Post the emergency alerts had been sent in error.

"USPACOM has detected no ballistic missile threat to Hawaii," Cmdr. Dave Benham, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command, said in an email. "Earlier message was sent in error. State of Hawaii will send out a correction message as soon as possible."

At 8:45 a.m. local time, an additional alert was sent to Hawaii residents advising them that the first warning had been a false alarm.

"There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii," the follow-up alert read, according to screenshots of the message. "Repeat. False Alarm."

It is unclear how or why the initial alert was sent out, and how many people received it. Wireless emergency alerts are usually dispatched during critical emergency situations and are a partnership between the Federal Communications Commission, FEMA and the wireless industry. Shortly after the false alarm, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said the commission was launching a full investigation into what happened.

"While I am thankful this morning's alert was a false alarm, the public must have confidence in our emergency alert system," Gov. David Ige tweeted Saturday. "I am working to get to the bottom of this so we can prevent an error of this type in the future."

On Saturday, deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters said President Donald Trump had been briefed on the situation and added it was "purely a state exercise."

What was clear was that the erroneous alerts caused a brief panic among those who read it and expected the worst.

Courtney McLaughlin, a wedding coordinator on Kauai island, said the alerts quickly turned a serene Saturday morning into "mass hysteria" on the roads.

"My boyfriend was like, 'Who do we sue for this?' We don't just need an apology, we need an explanation. Someone could have had a heart attack," McLaughlin, 29, said. "It took something that's kind of incomprehensible and very quickly made it very personal. All of a sudden going through your mind is, 'Is this the end of my life?' I called my mom, I called my dad, I called my brother and basically said my goodbyes."

On CNN, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said she received the alert, called Hawaii officials right away and confirmed it was "an inadvertent message that was sent out."

"You can only imagine what kicked in," Gabbard told CNN. "This is a real threat facing Hawaii, so people got this message on their phones and they thought, 15 minutes, we have 15 minutes before me and my family could be dead."

Less than two months ago, Hawaii reinstated its Cold War-era nuclear warning sirens amid growing fears of an attack by North Korea. Tests of the sirens were scheduled to be conducted on the first business day of every month for the foreseeable future. There were no planned tests for the cellphone alerts, similar to those sent out to warn of dangerous weather.

The siren tests were an audible example of the growing strife with North Korea, which has spooked other communities in the still-hypothetical line of fire. Guam distributed a pamphlet on nuclear attack preparedness that encouraged people to avoid using conditioner, "as it will bind the toxins to your hair." A 16-page bulletin released by emergency management authorities in California warned people to beware of radioactive pets.

Richard Rapoza, a spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said the protocol is typically as follows: The agency receives a message on a special line from the U.S. Pacific Command saying that there is a verified threat. There's a checklist the agency goes through to make sure the alert from U.S. Pacific Command is accurate. Then a human being triggers an alarm for phone and television; a separate person triggers the nuclear warning siren - which did not go off Saturday.

On Saturday, Rapoza said someone mistakenly triggered the cellphone and television alert during a shift change.

"We rely on the ability of the public to believe in us. Our credibility is vital and we are going to do whatever we can to make sure this never happens again," Rapoza said. "We should have been able to cancel the alert immediately. I shouldn't have taken that long. So we are going through our processes and procedures to figure out where that went wrong."

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, acknowledging the heightened tensions, admonished the wayward cellphone messages and vowed to investigate how such a mistake occurred.

"At a time of heightened tensions, we need to make sure all information released to community is accurate," Hirono tweeted Saturday. "We need to get to the bottom of what happened and make sure it never happens again."

Even as information was scarce, there were calls on Twitter for anyone who was responsible for sending the message in error to be held accountable.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said the false alarm was based on "a human error."

"There is nothing more important to Hawai'i than professionalizing and fool-proofing this process," Schatz tweeted Saturday.

He added in a subsequent tweet: "What happened today is totally inexcusable. The whole state was terrified. There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process."

Still others reacted nonchalantly to the alerts. More than two dozen vacationers had just departed from the town of Lahaina in Maui on a morning whale-watching excursion when their cellphones sounded with the alarm that a ballistic missile was inbound and to "seek immediate shelter."

The captain, calmly and almost cheerily, announced he was turning around the catamaran, without describing the precise threat.

"I think we might be better out there," the captain said, pointing out to sea. "But my boss said we should return and seek shelter."

Back on shore there was not panic, but mainly vacationers and others wondering why there was no immediate coverage on restaurant televisions or local radio.

"There's no information," said Jimmy Lee, 54, a visitor from San Diego. "What do we do?"

An officer at a local police station advised the alert was a mistake. When the all-clear was sounded, several tourists left the police station and returned home. There would be no whale sightings on this day.

Author information: Amy B Wang is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Paul Kane, Brittany Lyte and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this article.