Imagine being told via a cell phone warning (from your government) that a North Korean missile is en route to bomb your island home. That was Hawaii’s Saturday morning reality earlier this month, and we’re still reeling from it.
Normal Saturdays in Hawai’i mean a walk around Diamond Head with possible Humpback whale sightings. Standard Saturdays demand a drive across volcanic mountains to walk along Kailua’s crescent beach, a tall coffee or cocktail in hand. Celebratory Saturdays mean baby luaus to celebrate a child’s first birthday, which are culturally a very big deal here.
But while Hawai’i is the inventor of luaus, surfing, and hula, we’re also the home of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. That military presence, plus our location halfway between Asia and America, has thrown us literally in the middle of Trump and Kim Jong Un’s nuclear missile Twitter fits. We’re a five hour flight from California out into the center of the Pacific and the most isolated population center on Earth. For North Korea, we’re potentially the closer hit than Los Angeles, New York, or Washington D.C.
So when that warning flashed across cell phones, people started calling their loved ones to say goodbye. Families bawled in grocery stores. A man had a heart attack at the beach. Strangers asked homeowners if they could shelter in random homes they happened to be walking their dogs in front of. Waikiki hotels told visitors to shelter and prepare.
People believed it.
I didn’t. Not because I had any inside knowledge, but because my phone didn’t work. Nor did my husband’s. Neither of us got the message, though we’re with the same cellular carrier as others who did get the dire text:
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII.
SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.
THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
This is one of the mysteries of the day. Most people got the warning of imminent death. Some didn’t, and our family was one of them.
So I made myself a latte while others were filling up water containers and crowding into closets. I headed to Diamond Head for my walk with a dear friend, receiving a text from a neighbor as I parked.
Can you get my dog and take her to your house? I’m really freaked out about the missile and at work.
Huh? I thought. I Googled the combination of “missile” and “Hawai’i” but Diamond Head is sometimes a dead zone for internet. Then the phone calls and texts started tumbling in. People were losing it.
Are you okay?
I can’t believe this is happening.
Where are you guys sheltering?
My husband was home with our boys, making them breakfast and unimpressed by it all. There were no sirens blaring. And my decade as a reporter was telling me this rang false. Why wasn’t this being confirmed by the U.S. military instead of our local island warning center which is the go-to for hurricanes and tidal waves, but not exactly the first line of defense against North Korea?
I didn’t go blazing home. I sat in the car watching oblivious tourists jog past on their way to the Diamond Head crater walk. Local people manning the parking for a golf tournament were huddled together, hugging and worried. The girlfriend I was meeting called me.
“It’s a false alarm,” she said. “Do you still want to walk?”
We went ahead, talking about our kids, love, and parents as we passed surfers who hadn’t bothered coming in and palm trees that were still glistening and dancing on a very clear January day. I called my mother while driving home after. She sounded like she was engrossed in a book and hadn’t left coffee in bed yet for the rest of the day. Perhaps it was a genetic lack of alarm we shared.
Much of the rest of the island was traumatized. There were hysterical posts to social media and manic phone calls to radio stations. There was rage that it took 38 minutes for the state government to correct the mistake of some poor employee whom we later learned had pressed the wrong button. Twice. He’s since received death threats, people are so angry at what they went through emotionally. Some think our governor will now lose the next election, the island is so angry.
“I don’t know,” my mother said. “When it’s your time, it’s your time. There’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”
Had it actually come to my phone, I never would have left my kids. Had it come to my phone, I might have thrown up the way others described doing. As it was, I came home to find my family milling around, emails from their school popping up on my computer about how they’d evacuated sports teams into locker rooms, wondering if there was something wrong with how disconnected I felt from it all. Our 9 year old asked me later that week – after they’d talked about it at school – what we would have done if it was real.
“Would we hide under the staircase? Where the luggage lives?” he asked.
“That’s a good place. That would be safe,” I told him, in the voice you use when you talk about the tooth fairy. Because when you’re a small island in a big ocean that can claim Barack Obama as a native son, but you live under the Twitter cloud of Donald Trump, it’s time to face facts. You’re just a pawn. And when it’s your time, it’s your time. There’s not a whole lot you can do about it except hope Saturdays are for beaches and whales, palm trees and baby luaus.
I’m not sure I’d want to get the warning the next time, even if it were real.