6 Ways Hawaii’s Alarm Showed The World The Importance of Prepping

That image above is something that would send a chill down the spine of anyone, prepared or not. But what ensued after for many Hawaiians who received that message on what was supposed to be a fine Saturday morning was chaos, panic, sadness, and absolute desperation as the scramble for life commenced prior to what was believed to be an imminent nuclear attack.

For Hawaiians who were either in bed or having breakfast at 8.08am on January 13, the receipt of that screenshot above of that now famous public emergency alert and the words “THIS IS NOT A DRILL” will forever be a grim reminder of the state of the world we live in, where emergencies like this are an actual thing.

While a rare few had the pre-thought-out plan of seeking a shelter suitable for a nuclear attack, below the ground, underneath a brick building with a food and water supply, others were struck with chaos with the ‘what do I do?’ resonating strongly with the majority of the 1.5million-strong community.

The alert itself was an accident, thankfully, as a real attack would have had a devastating effect. The accident has since been identified as having been caused by an employee of the Hawaiian Government’s Emergency Management Agency when he “mistakenly pressed” the wrong button. The ‘mistake’ (if you can even call that level of carelessness a ‘mistake’) was rectified by another emergency alert sent out a whopping 38-minutes later.

As we saw for Hawaii, a lot can happen in 38 minutes.

What We Can Learn From Hawaii’s Grim, Yet False, Alarm

A sign displayed over a Hawaiian highway. Photo: Reuters

I started my first etchings of The Prepping Guide after being a victim of a flood that covered my hometown city. It was after that that I started to learn that preparedness isn’t just a government issue, but that it deserves a place in the home as much as a family budget plan or health does.

Many prepping bloggers use events like what happened in Hawaii as a way to identify the procedures and protocols that should exist and edge them out in easy guide formats. While it is a hobby to identify how to survive something, it is also a way to invite others to take up their own methods of preparedness and to identify gaps in mine, and other’s approaches.

The Hawaiian alert was a tragedy, as there are some who been left with both the physical and mental scars as a cause of the panic, but it can serve as a way for us to be more prepared and for emergency services, first responders, and government agencies to learn from a very real, very unscripted, trial run.

Here’s what I have taken from Hawaii’s ‘mistaken’ alert.

1. Know what to do now, not later

As the event was unfolding in Hawaii, I received an alert that there was an abnormal spike of views on of The Prepping Guide’s nuclear survival page.

In fact, one resident reached out in desperation to me through the Facebook Page to ask about the best place to seek shelter in the case of a nuclear attack. People shouldn’t have to resort to Google to save their own lives.

A science reporter from Business Insider had a similar occurrence, with residents Googling ‘underground bunkers’ and ‘where to go in a nuclear attack’ in order to find out what to do or what they’d need.

By no fault of their own, residents had no idea what to do, and in all honesty, this is a bit of a blind thing for myself, my friends and my family. Through the course of writing this site, I speak to my family and friends frequently about the interesting side of preparedness, so for the most part, people in my sphere have a basic understanding of where might be the safest place to survive a nuclear blast and what to do. However, for the everyday person, that knowledge, if any, is only garnered through film or literature.

This isn’t just a sign that people need to start thinking about what they might need to survive a nuclear attack, or about nuclear preparedness. It’s a sign that government entities need to increase their campaigns on basic messages such as what to do in the event of an emergency, whether it be an earthquake, flood, severe weather, or in Hawaii’s circumstance, a nuclear attack.

2. The emotional toll is stronger than anyone could imagine

After this failed alert, there needs to be counseling services offered. The emotional toll experienced by most Hawaiian residents was the of despair and grief at the possibility of death that they were about to face. This is also multiplied by the experiences they had to undergo, and the desperation of those around them as you can see by these following stories.

While many adults were in shock, so were their children, who are even more susceptible to emergency-related stress. This was especially pointed out by The Washington Post in the role of a mother in Hawaii during a nuclear fear.

For schoolteacher Meredyth Gilmore, she had ran to a bomb shelter but it was locked. She then sought shelter in the concrete hallway of a hotel with other families.

She said mums were trying to stay calm as the most heartbreaking thing was “seeing these little kids with tears running down their faces,” she told media.

When she was in the hallway with the other families, she said children were in tears and hyperventilating. “Parents were just trying to hold it together for their kids, Gilmore said.

In another part of Hawaii, residents found other ways to keep themselves safe after the attack warning. In the video below, which can only be described as chilling, in a bid to keep their children safe, adults lower a scared child into a storm drain to protect her from the imminent blast.

Another man had just dropped his son off at the airport and was on a highway when he heard the alert over the radio and had to quickly make a decision on where to go as his family was spread in various locations and could not reach all of them in time.

He said he had to decide whether he would be with his wife at her work, or with his children at home.

“I chose to go home to the two little ones I figured it was the largest grouping of my family. Knowing I likely wouldn’t make it home in time,” his message read. “I was tearing up South Street to the freeway when I heard it was a mistake.”

So what can we learn from this? There is a psychological side to preparedness that is rarely spoken about. On its own, this event was a disaster in terms of psychological damage. As you can see from these stories, there is a very heavy presence of grief and shock. PTSD and shock are relatively new areas in terms of emergency preparedness and emergency response and I am personally digging into further.

There are steps you can undertake to minimize the shock the body, and brain, goes through in an event like this through simple breathing exercises, however as the field develops, more strategies will be introduced.

3. Stock a simple supply

The current approach that government agencies recommend to surviving a nuclear attack is simple:

  1. Go as far below ground as possible. Shut off ventilation systems and seal doors or windows until the fallout cloud has passed, generally a matter of hours.
  2. Stay inside until authorities say it is safe to come out.
  3. Use stored food and drinking water.
  4. Listen to the local radio or television for official information. Broadcasts may be disrupted for some time as a result of power outages.

For Hawaiian’s, the majority of whom were underprepared, finding a building to hide inside was the easy part. The difficulty came in the stockpile of water and food.

Stocking the essentials is important for a nuclear attack as much as any other disaster

For those that had a home with an abundant kitchen, it was a simple sweep of the condiments shelf into a bag and a fill of the bathtub for water. Amanda Thompson, who was with her husband and two-year-old at the time of the alert, told CBS that they threw water and supplies into a closet under the stairs believing they were about to die.

“We grabbed everything we possibly could — blankets, pillows, diapers, wipes, food, water bottles — as I’m crying my eyes out”. This is why preparedness matters so much, it’s something we forget about when thinking of survival kits and survival, and that’s emotion. Most of us, in this situation, would be sending love messages to family, or trying to call in the hope to hear their voices. Having that food and water available is just a way to minimise the already maximum stress levels.

But most didn’t even have that food supply or water.

In those steps to surviving a nuclear attack, the requirement is to stay inside until authorities say it is safe to come out. But the time frame for that would be some time. This is because authorities will already be thinly stretched dealing with the mass casualties of victims that were caught in traffic, out in the streets panicking, or that were kicked out of stores such as Wal Mart or even gyms.

This response by authorities is time-consuming, so it is recommended that families have at least a three-day supply of water and food. This is the first step to prepping and should be a standard practice in all homes. It’s as simple as thinking ‘what do I need for three days‘ and putting that stuff into an easy, grabbable bag or bucket. The Hawaiian Emergency Management Agency recommends a much longer 14 day supply of food, water and other necessities as emergencies and disasters can stretch isolation out for further than three days. Personally, I believe it is better to have more than less.

A simple survival kit, which you can adjust to 14 days and is usable in any emergency, would consist of:

  • Non-perishable food (tinned, dried, long-lasting, ready-to-eat)
  • Water (two-liters per person, per day)
  • Hygienic supplies (baby wipes, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, bags to contain waste)
  • A battery/hand-crank operated radio
  • An external power bank for phones to charge
  • A whistle
  • A flashlight
  • Any medication you might need as well as some medical supplies in a first-aid kit

This is a very bare list of essentials, but from what we’ve seen in Hawaii as well as recent natural disasters, these are the contents that make up most survival kits recommended by emergency services.

4. Communicate effectively and multi-task

When thinking about emergency preparedness we all forget about the emotional side of it. That side of love and family was ever so present in Hawaii’s mistaken alert scenario as phone conversations were beaming with heartening messages to family and loved ones afar of “I love you” and “I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time with…”.

For most, the alert message that Saturday morning was a death notice. And with that notice, it was shock, confusion and desperation that ensued as family members tried to contact each other.

This happens in every type of disaster too. Yes there is a much more fatal outlook on a nuclear attack, but for natural disasters, messages and conversations to family are just a common. For a few Hawaiian residents, contacting family was done alongside sweeping out the cupboard shelf of tin can food and filling up water bottles to head down into the basement or an apartment carpark with.

While that emotional connection is a human instinct, it is also important to remember to do it alongside getting yourself and anyone else ready with your pre-stocked supplies, or getting supplies together and getting to a safe place.

5. Emergency alert systems could have caused WW3

It is not only the family home that needs to be prepared, government systems can also do with an improvement in the way they manage their emergency preparedness tasks and systems.

I agree that a nuclear attack is not a highly likely possibility for any country, but it is within the scope of emergency services and authorities to consider. It is just as likely as a World War 3, yet defense budgets are huge, so the systems of an emergency such as a nuclear attack need to be addressed.

The ‘mistaken’ alert in Hawaii was caused by one employee clicking the wrong item on the drop-down menu of software which manages national alerts. In the defense world, very rarely is a system that big ran by the click of one single employee. There is always at least a two-person approval when it comes to systems of that scale.

Officials in Hawaii have recently said that they have implemented a change to ensure it would not be a single person process anymore and that from now on, there would be at least two people to initiate an alert.

Nuclear war could be triggered after a false alert. Especially with tensions after several North Korean ICBM tests. Photo: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

There is a very relevant argument for introducing a two-person verification system to emergency alert systems, not only in Hawaii, but in the rest of the emergency services world. Sure, there are arguments on the contrary that computer error could have occurred, as well as others, but it shows that the current system has a flaw that needs to be fixed.

The result of that mistake was the widespread shock of residents as they felt as though their life was coming to an end. For them, it could have felt like the end of the world. That’s not to mention the damage to vehicles caught in traffic and the trauma for loved ones having to listen to the goodbyes of Hawaiian residents.

But an even worse outcome could have been a military response to a false missile attack. In the Cold War, it was a government fear that a leader might launch real missiles in response to a false report. What if that occurred in this circumstance? The ‘mistaken’ push of a button could have caused a responsive attack of which those missiles could not be aborted or called off, essentially causing real widespread devastation riding on the back of a false alert.

That’s a risk emergency services need to consider when deciding upon whether or not systems and processes are improved.

6. Why were some businesses kicking people out?

Large business chains can also implement strategies to deal with emergency-related events, and should have standard operating procedures on how management and store managers should respond in an emergency such as the missile threat in Hawaii. For Walmart, the performance was a disgrace.

In the scramble to find the closest safe shelter prior to the potential nuclear attack, some Hawaiians took up refuge in businesses such as Walmart. Much to their dismay, there was no assistance there, and in fact, residents were kicked out of the store during the warning period and were told to go somewhere else.

There was also reports of gyms in Honolulu forcing people to leave who were desperately seeking shelter. Patron Niki Chan told Hawaii News that she did not know what was going on. “They sent me home, they kicked us out.”

Other businesses in the surrounding area did offer people refuge, which raises the question, why were some businesses kicking people out of stores while others were offering shelter? In the likelihood of a nuclear attack, it would seem common sense to help others and offer shelter, rather than locking the doors and not helping at all.

Businesses such as Walmart and other retail giants owe a duty to the communities they are in to assist in times of emergencies and should provide training to regional and store managers to be able to operate effectively in that role as a community stakeholder.

This illustration from EPA shows ideal shelter for nuclear attack. You should be seeking the blue indicative colors for protection.

Walmart sent a statement to news services which said it was reviewing its procedures to “help ensure all of our associates are prepared for any similar situations in the future.”

“We can’t imagine the panic, chaos and fear that Hawaii residents, including our associates and customers, experienced during the false emergency alert,” said Delia Garcia, senior director of communications for Walmart.

“Our store and club associates are trained to respond to a broad range of emergency situations and, despite the unprecedented nature of this alert, their quick response helped many people find immediate shelter inside our buildings. We understand that in the confusion some associates may have misunderstood the direction and evacuated customers rather than sheltering in place. For this we apologize.”

The aftermath: recovery for Hawaii, improvement for preparedness

There is no doubt that while Hawaii has been lucky that there was no real missile attack, damage has still been caused by this ‘mistaken’ alert in both psychological and physical damage.

However, as we experience, endure and recover from emergency situations like this, the best thing stakeholders and family homes can do is to learn from the mistakes made and better themselves.

Let me know your thoughts on this topic!