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Hawaii officials say 'NO missile threat' amid emergency alerts

This alert was sent to phones in Hawaii. (Matthew Nelson/The Washington Post)
This alert was sent to phones in Hawaii. (Matthew Nelson/The Washington Post)
Published Jan. 13, 2018

Emergency alerts sent to the cellphones of Hawaii residents Saturday warning of a "ballistic missile threat" were a false alarm reportedly sent by mistake, officials said.

Shortly after 8 a.m. local time Saturday, several alarmed 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."

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted at 8:20 a.m. local time that there was no missile threat to the state.

The U.S. Navy also confirmed in an email 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. What was clear was that the first message caused a brief panic, at least on social media, among those who read it and expected the worst.

On CNN, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said she received the alert, called Hawaii officials 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.

The 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.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), acknowledging the heightened tensions, admonished the wayward message and vowed to investigate how it 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."

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