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False alert of missile attack sparks panic in Hawaii

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A morning alert that warned of a ballistic missile heading straight for Hawaii and sent residents into a full-blown panic Saturday was a mistake, state emergency officials said.

The emergency alert, which was sent to cellphones across the island shortly after 8 a.m. local time, said in all capital letters, “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

However, there was no attack on Hawaii, and officials later said the alert was sent in error. Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesman Richard Repoza said the agency is trying to determine what happened.

Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki said someone pushed the wrong button, and Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for Gov. David Ige, confirmed to the Associated Press that it was human error, but said she didn’t have further details.

Saiki said the system Hawaii residents have been told to rely on failed miserably. He also took emergency management officials to task for taking 30 minutes to issue a correction, prolonging panic.

He said in a statement that the Hawaii House of Representatives would begin an immediate investigation.

“Clearly, government agencies are not prepared and lack the capacity to deal with emergency situations,” Saiki said.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters issued a statement on the incident: “The President has been briefed on the state of Hawaii’s emergency management exercise. This was purely a state exercise.”

The incident prompted defense agencies including the Pentagon and the U.S. Pacific Command to issue the same statement, that they had “detected no ballistic missile threat to Hawaii.”

Michael Kucharek, spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Col., said NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command are still trying to verify what happened in Hawaii — but that “NORAD did not see anything that indicated any sort of threat to Hawaii.”

“From a NORAD perspective and that of the U.S. Northern Command, we are still trying to verify what happened,” he said of the false alert.

NORAD is a U.S.-Canada joint command that conducts aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning to defend North America. The U.S. Northern Command, also based in Colorado Springs, is tasked with air, land and sea defense of the continental United States, Alaska, Canada, Mexico and portions of the Caribbean.

The alert caused a tizzy on the island and across social media.

At the Sony Open on Oahu, Waialae Country Club was largely empty and players were still a few hours from arriving for the PGA Tour event. The tournament staff urged an evacuation of the media center. “This is not a drill,” said Candice Kraughto, who runs the media operations for the Open.

A local radio show from the clubhouse, next to glass windows that overlook the Pacific, kept broadcasting. Staff members at the club streamed into the clubhouse and tried to seek cover in the locker room, which was filled with players’ golf bags, but instead went into the kitchen.

Several players took to Twitter.

“Just woke up here in Hawaii to this lovely text. Somebody can verify this?” tweeted Emiliano Grillo of Argentina.

Justin Thomas, the PGA Tour player of the year, tweeted, “To all that just received the warning along with me this morning … apparently it was a ‘mistake’?? hell of a mistake!! Haha glad to know we’ll all be safe.”

Jaime Malapit, owner of a Honolulu hair salon, texted his clients that he was canceling their appointments and was closing his shop for the day. He said he was still in bed when the phone started going off “like crazy.” He said he thought it was a tsunami warning at first.

“I woke up and saw missile warning and thought, ‘No way.’ I thought, ‘No, this is not happening today,'” Malapit said.

He said he was still “a little freaked out” and feeling paranoid even after hearing it was a false alarm.

Richard Ing, a Honolulu attorney, said he was doing a construction project at home when his wife told him about the alert.

He said he dug his phone out and had confirmed he had the same alert. Attempts to find further information on the television or were unsuccessful, he said, and then he saw on Twitter that it was a false alarm.

While he was trying to confirm, his wife and children were preparing to evacuate in case they needed to move to safer ground, he said.

After finding out it was a mistake, Ing tried to find some humor in the situation.

“I thought to myself, it must be someone’s last day at work or someone got extremely upset at a superior and basically did this as a practical joke,” he said. “But I think it’s a very serious problem if it wasn’t that, or even it was, it shows that we have problems in the system that can cause major disruption and panic and anxiety among people in Hawaii.”

Some were outraged that such an alert could go out in error.

Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz tweeted the false alarm was “totally inexcusable” and was caused by human error.

“There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process,” he wrote.


UPDATES:

1:10 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from House Speaker Scott Saiki.

12:20 a.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the White House and reactions from Hawaii.

11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with statements from Hawaii Gov. David Ige and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.

11:10 a.m.: This article was updated with reaction from Honolulu resident Jamie Malapit.

10:55 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details.

This article was originally published at 10:40 a.m.

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