Published On: Sat, Jan 13th, 2018

In Hawaii, a false-alarm missile alert is a shocking glimpse of reality

A screengrab of the push notification sent to people in Hawaii alerting a “ballistic missile threat.” The alert was later confirmed as a false alarm. (Twitter)

MAUI, HI.—As a vacation destination, the island of Maui—perhaps more than almost any other place that North Americans like to escape to—is a place of constant, intentional distraction.

It’s a place where you have to suspend disbelief that a place like this exists—both in its remarkable views and placid lifestyle, but also in practical terms. Its resorts are protective bubbles for its visitors, but they are also lifelines for a state whose primary industries are connected to the unsteady whims of tourism. The state of Hawaii has its glistening hotels and peaceable beaches, but also the highest per capita homeless population in the United States and a growing gulf of income inequality, according to a 2012 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Tourists regularly bustle blithely through religious sites and private homesteads.

It’s a place where, to summit the dormant volcano at the breathtaking Haleakala National Park or to wend through the nauseating Road to Hana, you have to turn off the part of your brain that would otherwise sagely shriek that you don’t know what’s around all those blind turns, that you don’t know whether a car might be waiting to send you hurtling over the edge.

It’s a place where the common refrain from vendors trying to sell demurring tourists on their costly zipline tours or overpriced kayak rentals or snorkel cruises with their tacked-on open bars and cheap buffets is a paean to sunk-cost fallacy: you’re already here.

READ: Hawaii sends ‘ballistic missile threat’ message by mistake

For a little more than 15 minutes—not long after another stunning sunrise where the sun doesn’t so much ascend as much as the clouds lift on another inexplicably perfect Saturday morning—that koan had a different, incapacitating meaning. Sitting primly in the vast north Pacific Ocean, nearly 4,000 kilometres away from the continental U.S., a state still psychically affected by an attack more than 76 years ago that launched the U.S. into the Second World War was seized by an all-caps push notification: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

What shelter? Where could we go? There is no paralysis deeper, it turns out, than the dawning horror that we’re already here.

It also turns out that, in a crisis, everyone becomes more of who they already are. My father, who—like so many fathers—likes to keep CNN on in the background of his life so he can occasionally offer responses to the frantic panels of the day, turned on the network in our hotel room, only to find no news. And my mother, weathered into eerie calm by years of her children testing the conservative bounds of what she considers safe, wandered into my room with the casualness of someone noting that breakfast was ready: “We’re all awake now… Dad got a notification.” What notification? “Something about an incoming ballistic missile.”

Where wiser, better people would use the minutes before potential hellfire to hunker down with family, I instead started doing the work I knew best: finding credible sources. I jogged outside, cell phone in hand, and saw tanned bodies milling about in the hallway, nervously clutching their towels. In lieu of information, people were urged to return to their rooms, but few did. For what felt like an hour, constant refreshes of Twitter offered no information. A college basketball game on the TV I was watching was interrupted by an atonic beep, a bold red ticker, and then a grim voice: “A missile may impact land or sea in minutes.” Those words again: “This is not a drill.”

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And so, without information to suggest otherwise, I allowed myself the thought: this was real. And I went back to my family’s room—and kept that to myself.

About 10 harrowing minutes later, to the credit of a resort that surely has little experience informing tourists about the veracity of missile hellfire, the Westin’s lobby alarm system blared out: this was a false alarm. Shortly thereafter, Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency tweeted the same.

The crisis began to abate. If it feels somewhat American to be upset at learning that you were inconvenienced, the relief of life surely eased it. The generic Polynesian music being piped across the resort, which never turned off, continued to play. Visitors began to lay their beach towels along the much-desired chairs along the pool. The distraction began again.

For as much as popular culture and the media at large has mused over the chances of nuclear warfare, it never quite felt real. Pearl Harbour feels like a lifetime ago. A place like Hawaii, the most likely target of an attack from North Korea on U.S. soil, has been preparing with drills and siren installations over the last year. But those fraught, confused minutes, the frozen feeling in everyone’s knees, and the scared looks on vacationers’ faces were only possible because it became suddenly clear that we all felt this was inherently impossible

Leave it to a place as unreal as the delicate islands of Hawaii to make something deeply real.


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In Hawaii, a false-alarm missile alert is a shocking glimpse of reality