People would have the legal right to shelter in “buildings open to the public” during emergencies if some Hawaii state senators have their way.

They introduced Senate Bill 2534 two weeks after a false missile alert was texted to cellphones across the state. Soon after, reports surfaced of businesses kicking out people who were shopping or seeking shelter due to liability concerns.

Sammie Makini and her fiancé, Brandon Waddell, received the incoming-missile warning Jan. 13 while driving to Pearlridge Shopping Center. They had their two younger children with them after dropping off their oldest daughter at volleyball practice in Aiea.

MIssile Alert Error There is no Threat sign on the Liliha Street freeway overpass.
A freeway overpass sign notified drivers that the missile alert was false Jan. 13. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Their view heading down the road was of Pearl Harbor.

“I thought, we’re going to be in the front row of whatever they’re trying to do,” Makini told Civil Beat. “Part of me was hoping for the best, that this is a false alarm.”

Still, she said, “People were running red lights, just in complete panic.”

They pulled into the shopping center and joined other people heading into a large store for shelter. Makini said they hunkered down but were told by a manager that they had to leave because the store was “not responsible for anyone but our employees.”

The family went into the center of the mall where others were taking shelter, some more seriously than others.

SB 2534 aims to prevent situations like this. It would also protect building owners from being liable for death, injury or damage to personal property that occurs in a disaster.

Sen. Michelle Kidani, vice president of the Senate, introduced the bill. She was joined by two of her colleagues in Senate leadership: Sen. J. Kalani English, majority leader, and Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, majority caucus leader.

Senate President Kouchi Sen Michelle Kidani Sen J. Kalani English discuss with media post Governor Ige State of State 2018 speech.
Sen J. Kalani English co-sponsored the bill that Sen. Michelle Kidani introduced requiring businesses to permit people to stay inside during emergencies. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the event of an emergency, Kidani said people who flee to stores would be protected.

“These (stores) are places where people were asked to leave,” she said. “The fact is that the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency says in their presentation … to stay where you are.”

Representatives of some businesses later claimed it was not their policy to kick people out in an emergency, Kidani said, but their employees in charge weren’t aware of that.

The Senate will also be introducing a resolution to ask the Federal Communications Commission to require all cellphones to receive emergency alerts without their owners having the option to opt out, Kidani said. Another would request the FCC to require local broadcast stations to regularly give HEMA time slots to broadcast public service announcements.

“While we are asking Hawaii Emergency Management Agency to get us more information as to what happened, I think this would also be a time to call for getting information out to the public” regarding shelters and the best place to go within those shelters, she said.

Kidani said she believes SB 2534 has a chance of passing. It was referred to the Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs Committee and the Judiciary Committee. The chairs of those committees, Sen. Clarence Nishihara and Sen. Brian Taniguchi, respectively, have not indicated whether they would give it a hearing.

“Something’s got to pass,” Kidani said. “I mean, how else do we protect our people?”

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