Human error caused panic across Hawaii Saturday after an Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee accidentally pushed the “wrong button” during a drill that simulated a nuclear ballistic missile attack, a test the state has been performing for months.

Around 8 a.m. thousands of residents received the following message to their cell phones:

BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL

It took nearly 10 minutes for the Emergency Management Agency to declare the threat false on Twitter and Facebook. And 38 minutes passed before a follow-up cell phone message was sent declaring that it was a false alarm.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige held a press conference Saturday afternoon with emergency management officials to apologize for the slip up, explain what happened, and detail how the state planned to ensure a similar situation does not occur in the future.

“I, too, am very angry and disappointed that this has happened,” Ige said inside the emergency agency’s Diamond Head crater headquarters.

He added later, “We have already taken action to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Ige confirmed that no hacking was involved in sending out the alert.

Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi said that the employee who made the mistake felt terrible for triggering the alarm.

Miyagi apologized for the “trouble” and “heartbreak” caused by alert. “I accept the responsibility for this,” he said. “This is my team. We made a mistake.”

But Miyagi also used the opportunity to highlight the fact that if the missile threat were real, Hawaii residents would only have 12 to 15 minutes to react and find shelter.

“I regret what happened this morning,” Miyagi said. “But it brings us up to speed again about what to expect and what to do.”

Miyagi explained that the mistake happened during a drill that occurred around a shift change at the agency. He said an employee, was using a computer program as part of the drill, and clicked on the wrong button, which sent out the mass alert.

“It’s human error,” Miyagi said. “There is a screen that says, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’”

According to Miyagi, the employee clicked through the warning prompt, which resulted in thousands of residents receiving an alert that a missile was headed toward the islands. It’s unclear how many people actually received the warning.

Miyagi said he was uncertain why some emergency sirens around the state also went off.

Ige said that testing of the alert system will be suspended for now. He also said that two people will now have to approve an alert before it goes public.

The testing on Saturday was part of Hawaii’s efforts to upgrade its alert system to provide earlier warning to residents in case of a missile attack.

Ige and Miyagi acknowledged that the state’s emergency agency did not have a process in place to cancel a false warning. Furthermore, the agency didn’t realize until several minutes later that it had accidentally sent out the warning to the public, Miyagi said.

“We didn’t have a message scripted that said this is a false alarm,” Ige said. “We were not prepared for that.”

“So we have built that now,” he added.

While state officials could instantaneously send out the erroneous alert, they required approvals from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send out the corrected alert — and that process contributed to the 38-minute delay, officials said.

“We have to clear that to make sure that we can get that out,” Miyagi said. On Saturday morning, information technology staff with the emergency agency scrambled to get those approvals “as fast as they could,” he added.

Civil Defense head Verne Miyagi apologizes to our community/public via media during press conference held at the Diamond Head Emergency Operations Center.

Verne Miyagi, head of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, apologizes for the false alarm and detailed steps to prevent future errors at a press conference Saturday.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sharp Congressional Reaction

The false alert, which comes at a time of heightened tension and anxiety about North Korea’s capabilities of delivering a nuclear missile attack on Hawaii and the mainland, drew national attention.

The White House said in a statement that, “The President has been briefed on the state of Hawaii’s emergency management exercise. This was purely a state exercise.”

The chief of staff for the Federal Communications Commission said Saturday the agency will launch an investigation into the false alarm.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz was sharply critical on Twitter. First, he made sure to tell his followers that the threat was not real. Then he discussed “professionalizing and fool-proofing” the warning system.

Sen. Mazie Hirono tweeted, “At a time of heightened tensions, we need to make sure all information released to the community is accurate. We need to get to the bottom of what happened and make sure it never happens again.”

Meanwhile, legislators have called for a joint Senate and House Committee informational briefing for Friday at 10 a.m. to review operations of the Emergency Management Agency.

‘Everybody Was Just Going Crazy’

The alert triggered panic and confusion around the state.

Many people were calling 911, talking to loved ones and looking for a place to wait out the threat.

Students at the University of Hawaii Manoa streamed out of the dorms, some still in bathrobes and pajamas. Vehicles were parked inside the H-3 tunnel as motorists sought the shelter of the mountain.

On Hawaii’s most populous island, Oahu, with nearly 1 million residents, Honolulu police officers saw motorists running red lights and speeding around the roadways.

According to Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard, there was even a report of a golfer who was so panicked that he drove his golf cart from the course he was playing, through the streets and to a nearby hospital in an attempt to seek shelter from the impending missile.

Ballard said the department’s dispatch center received more than 5,500 calls, but was only able to answer around 3,000. She said there were about 1,900 dropped calls.

Timeline

“Everybody was just going crazy because of this,” Ballard said.

She said her officers tried to quell the concern using their PA systems to tell people in populated areas that they were safe and that everything was due to a false alarm.

The department was also able to issue a notice using the city’s “HNL Info” mobile app.

There were no reports of injuries as a result of the state’s mistake, and Ballard said one of the biggest headaches for the department was clearing the H-3 tunnel of motorists.

“We actually found out about three minutes after the alarm went off it was a false alarm,” she said.

“We just wanted to get the information out, which turned out to be a good thing because the state wasn’t able to get the all clear until much later.”

On Saturday, George Szigeti, president and chief executive with the Hawaii Tourism Authority, stood with Ige and Miyagi at the news conference to reassure the public that the visitor industry had been able to address the alarm with guests.

“Hawaii is open for business,” Szigeti told reporters, pitching the state in the wake of the false alarm as “the most safe, clean, welcoming destination in the world.”

But tourists had a mixed reaction.

George and June Collins were in bed at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Waikiki when an alarm sounded in the hotel.

“You just didn’t want to believe it,” said June, 87, who said there were terrified guests crying in the stairwell of the twin tower high rise. “You’re just so vulnerable in Hawaii.”

International headlines discussing a nuclear attack on Hawaii – even in the context of a false alarm – are far from what Hawaii tourism executives want to see. Even if the risk of Hawaii being attacked is low, the risk that fear of an attack will drive tourists away worries leaders in the state’s leading industry.

Izabella Dugarova, a 26-year-old hospitality worker from Yakutsk, Russia, was surprised to receive worried texts from her brother back home, where news of the missile alarm was on the news.

“If it was a mistake, it was a really stupid mistake. People were panicked. It was just awful.”

Scott Speldrick, a tourist from Minnesota, took the alarm about a missile attack with fatalism. “Nothing I can do about it. One blinding flash and everything’s done.”

Stewart Yerton/ Civil Beat

Scott Speldrick of Zimmerman, Minnesota, was eating an omelette at the Aston Waikiki Hotel when members of his party got the text. Speldrick took the news with a sense of fatalism  said they figured they could watch the nuclear blast from the jetty near Queen’s surf spot.

Another Minnesotan, Wes Rydeen, concurred that there wasn’t any point in seeking shelter.

“We kicked it around and decided there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot you could do,” he said.

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