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What the hell do you do when you're in the middle of what should be the vacation of a lifetime and you learn a ballistic missile is headed your way?
What do you do when you're going about your daily life and you learn the world as you know it could end and you're away from your kids?
What do you do when you find out it's all the result of a mistake?
These were some of the questions bouncing across the internet yesterday after vacationers and residents in Hawaii were sent into a panic like no other after the worst possible message appeared on cell phone screens across the state: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Hawaii is a chain of islands, as we know. As such, it has had tsunami drills and earthquake drills. For the first time since the Cold War ended, it began nuclear threat drills about a month or so ago; while it was considered unlikely that nuclear war could break out, given the current tensions between the United States under President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, it was deemed a sensible precaution.
No one could have predicted the catastrophic mistake that occurred on January 13.
Reportedly, the error went out because a worker hit the wrong button during a shift change. The alert was sent out under the auspices of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and took 38 minutes to rescind, something which Governor David Y. Ige said was "unacceptable," according to The New York Times.
"I am sorry for that pain and confusion that anyone might have experienced," he said.
Pain and confusion strike me as two words that are gross understatements in a situation such as the one those in Hawaii found themselves in January 13. I am several thousand miles away from Hawaii and only just found out about what happened during the early evening hours of January 13, and I was horrified. I couldn't imagine what gamut of emotions those who were coping with that sort of news ran through. In addition, I felt a particular pang for the kids who would be just old enough to be aware of the emergency alert that went out, either because they have cell phones of their own or because they heard from somewhere — whether that be friends, family or otherwise — what was going on and learned why sirens were going off. How do you explain to a 13-year-old (or any kid, really) that A.) you don't know what's going to happen in the next 15 to 30 minutes and B.) they should make peace with themselves and with whatever religious figure they believe in because the next 15 to 30 minutes could be their last on the planet?
Then, how do you explain it was all a terrible mistake because someone hit the wrong button?
Thankfully, kids are amazingly resilient, so while I'm certain there will be questions about what, exactly, transpired to have the alert sent out and what caused the delay in sending out the news that it was a false alarm, kids will bounce back fairly quickly from what was a terrifying half-hour experience. Adults, however, tend to be far more ingrained in their behaviors, and far more cynical.
It's great that the management agency now has a two-step authentication in place to prevent this sort of mistake from happening again, but because the false alarm has gone out once, who will believe the alert when it's real?
That's the question the people in charge of alerts like that are now grappling with, and rightfully so. With people having decreasing faith that their politicians and their governments are really doing the right things by their people, though, a mistake of this magnitude — as much as it was simply a matter of human error — is only going to serve to inspire people to doubt their governments and their associated entities further.