Dozens of legislators and their staffers met behind closed doors Tuesday to hear a briefing by state Emergency Management Agency officials on preparedness for a North Korea nuclear strike on Hawaii.
Some lawmakers who attended stressed that the secret meeting was not called because of any immediate threat to the islands. Instead, it was a discussion of how to help the public prepare.
A public meeting on the topic is planned for Thursday at 10:30 a.m. in the Capitol auditorium. Legislators said they did not know how that meeting would differ from Tuesday’s.
Civil Beat obtained a copy of a memo Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chair of the Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs, sent Monday inviting all legislators and their staffs to attend a presentation by the EMA “regarding recent regional military threats and the planned responses to such events.”
Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, said the Legislature sets its own rules on public access and the state constitution only prohibits private meetings that concern decision-making committee hearings.
Shortly after Civil Beat photographer Cory Lum showed up to take pictures, he was asked to leave by a staffer.
Civil Beat still caught the end of the meeting as legislators and EMA officials discussed how to best prepare residents and visitors for a nuclear attack without fear-mongering.
“It seems to me that primal instincts are going to just overwhelm nearly everybody,” said Sen. Gil Riviere, who then repeated the advice given out recently by the EMA: “Get inside, stay inside, stay tuned.”
“People are just going to be fleeing, they’re not going to stay in,” Riviere added.
EMA Executive Officer Toby Clairmont said Thursday’s public presentation would stress the importance of emergency preparedness, like keeping enough food on hand for 14 days.
“When you hear us speak to the public, it’s going to start off with the majority talking about how to prepare your family for major emergencies … getting your act together. And then it’s going to include this (preparation for a nuclear attack) as one hazard in addition to hurricanes and tsunamis and other things,” Clairmont told the legislators and staffers.
He said residents of South Korea don’t “live in great fear” because they’ve incorporated nuclear attack preparedness into their everyday lives.
Nishihara told Civil Beat after the meeting that it was held so legislators know in advance what’s being presented at the public meeting. “Restricted information” was discussed, he said.
But the senator did speak more generally about preparedness for a nuclear attack.
Interceptor missile systems in Alaska and California could destroy incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles, he said.
“It’s a good idea that the public in general have an idea of what to do … not to get people in a state of mind where they’re panic-stricken, certainly, because we aren’t there,” Nishihara said.
He noted that the EMA will be testing the “wailing sound” of sirens that would warn people of an impending attack.
Those tests will begin in November. In the event of an actual emergency, the siren would indicate people have 12 to 15 minutes to seek shelter.
There are no current plans to build nuclear fallout shelters, but it’s important to inform people so they can decide how to prepare, Nishihara said.
Rep. Gene Ward said Tuesday’s meeting was held behind closed doors because slides in the EMA’s presentation were marked “for official use only” and some showed “where (North Korea) might target or what the impact might be” regarding fatalities. “I think it’s because they didn’t want to spook any of the public.”
The military doesn’t have the capacity to handle thousands of casualties, Ward said, and there aren’t enough hospital beds available. Ward said EMA officials stressed that people would need to stay indoors for 48 to 72 hours after a nuclear blast.
Public education and awareness campaigns are critical, Ward said. Hotels need a preparedness plan and Costco stores could be used as resource centers in the event of an attack, he said.
During the meeting, Senate President Ron Kouchi of Kauai recalled trying to help a non-English-speaking tourist during Hurricane Iniki in 1992 to illustrate the difficulty visitors may have trying to locate emergency shelters.
Riviere said the EMA’s presentation explained what might happen if a bomb detonated at various altitudes above Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
“They don’t want people thinking, ‘I live in Kailua, so I’m safe,'” Riviere said, because an incoming missile could miss its intended target.
Five working groups were formed “to smooth out” disaster preparedness plans, Riviere said.
Sen. Josh Green told Civil Beat he will participate in one of those groups, but declined to elaborate. Given his background in emergency medical services, he said he wanted to be involved.
Riviere said the normal emergency alerts aren’t always enough, and the EMA wants the public to become familiar with a different siren that was phased out decades ago. Its sound would alert people to seek shelter.
Legislators said the EMA plans to play a clip of that siren sound at the public meeting. After that, it will conduct monthly tests of the warning siren.
It’s also important for schools to develop emergency preparation plans, Riviere said.
He said people should start thinking where they would go to seek shelter from a nuclear attack if they only had five minutes’ warning. The more building material you can hide behind, the better.
“If you’re in an area and there’s radiation, the natural reaction would be, ‘I’ve gotta get away from here,'” Riviere said. “If you get up and try to make a dash for it you’re gonna get blasted by radiation.”
Read the information packet distributed at Tuesday’s meeting below:
View the presentation given at Thursday’s public meeting below: