A lot of folks are calling for sanctions over the errant missile alert in Hawaii last week, but just as important are the lessons for the rest of us.

Certainly, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency needs to get its house in order — while not making alerts so cumbersome that there’s any delay in warning.

This event made it absolutely clear that we members of the larger community also need to get our houses in order.

The agency has been issuing information about the North Korea missile threat for six months. But for many people, this event was clearly the first time they’d seriously thought about the risk.

A warning siren in the Waikiki-Kapahulu Public Library parking lot. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know where to go. They didn’t know what to tell their kids. In many cases, their kids had not been briefed at all.

If a missile can get here in 20 minutes from North Korea, and the alert comes sometime within that 20 minutes, it’s too late to start assembling your go-bag or getting in a car and driving across town.

This is not a hurricane that’s three days out. You have 12-15 minutes from the time alerts go out and sirens sound. The key recommendation is to immediately take cover.

If you have friends and neighbors around you who need help, that’s a bigger priority than spending minutes calling the mainland.

An excerpt from the Department of Homeland Security website on tips for surviving a nuclear attack. 

If you’re a business with a secure location, you need to shelter people, not rush them out of the building as some did.

In my community, my cell phone provider gave me a phone alert, but my neighbor’s did not. Meanwhile, on another island, my cell phone provider failed to alert, but others did. That’s a problem.

Were lifeguards alerted to get people out of the water, off beaches and to protected locations?

“I was surfing. I didn’t know anything,” my neighbor told me.

Best estimates are that most people will survive a nuclear attack.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency will step up and correct its failures, just as it stepped up and quickly admitted them.

But in our zeal to punish them, let’s not let ourselves off the hook. Best estimates are that most people will survive a nuclear attack.

“Current estimates of human casualties based on the size (yield) of North Korean nuclear weapon technology strongly suggests an explosion less than 6 miles in diameter. More than 90 percent of the population would survive the direct effects of such an explosion.”

That is from this fact sheet from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

This is a learning moment. We must not, as a community, be so unprepared in the future. A good resource for this kind of event is the Department of Homeland Security’s preparedness website.

There are things to do before an emergency, things we should all be doing now. Like talking to family, developing a plan and getting an emergency kit together.

And importantly, learning what the recommendations are for after an event. Because with cell phones and the internet out of service, it will be too late to Google it.

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About the Author

  • Jan TenBruggencate

    Jan TenBruggencate was the science and environment writer and Kauai Bureau Chief for the Honolulu Advertiser. He left to start a communications consulting firm, Island Strategy LLC. His science writing has generated awards from the Hawaii Audubon Society, Hawaiian Academy of Science, The Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Council for Hawaii and others.