State emergency leaders bucked their own protocols when they started running missile-alert drills last year without a plan to educate the public, work with other agencies, or, more significantly, to cancel the alert and declare the situation all-clear.
That’s what a much-anticipated report out Tuesday found in the aftermath of Hawaii’s notorious Jan. 13 false-missile alert — a snafu that with the click of a mouse stoked fear and panic across the islands. Warnings of imminent attack lit up cell phones and swept across the airwaves.
Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hara and his seven-member team of emergency officials, including Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, concluded that the emergency management agency in one of the world’s most remote and vulnerable places lacks “vision” and “direction” to set priorities. Their “All-Hazards” report recommends 44 steps — at a cost of at least $2 million — to fix Hawaii’s emergency alert system.
Hara’s plan not only covers procedures to warn Hawaii of a ballistic missile — the only missile-alert system in the country — but also natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis. Gov. David Ige, who’s faced withering criticism for his own response in the minutes after the alert, ordered the report two days after the incident.
“The problem to me was real simple what happened — we have some management problems, and that has to be fixed,” Kim said at a news conference with Ige and Hara on Tuesday.
There’s no set deadline for officials to complete all of the recommendations. They range from short-term fixes — including some that were done the day of the alert — to long-term, expensive undertakings such as building a $135 million joint emergency operations center and eventually creating more deep ports so the state isn’t so dependent on Honolulu Harbor.
Notably, Kim, who previously served as Hawaii County’s civil defense director, said he contacted former Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi several times between July and November to warn HEMA that it was moving too quickly with the drills.
The state agency, Kim said, should have waited until it had a better response plan in place before conducting drills anticipating an actual nuclear attack.
However, he said, Miyagi told him that the drills were critical based on the escalating rhetoric between North Korea and the U.S. leaders.
North Korea has grown more isolated from the international community as its nuclear program has accelerated. North Korea launched some 35 missile tests in the past two years, officials said at Tuesday’s conference.
Miyagi resigned in January about two weeks after the missile alert debacle. Brig. Gen. Moses Kaoiwi is HEMA’s interim administrator but state leaders are seeking a permanent replacement.
Kim said he’s already recommended a candidate for the job who’s retired from the military, based in Arizona and previously lived in Hawaii. The person reviewed post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans as well as problems in Iraq, and he’s interested in taking the job, Kim said.
When a reporter suggested that Kim’s candidate was retired Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who was raised in Wahiawa, Kim appeared to confirm it.
Kim said he likely would be part of a new team if asked by Taguba.
In addition to Miyagi, HEMA’s executive director, Toby Clairmont, also resigned.
In an interview last month, Clairmont said employees weren’t properly trained to use the new warning system.
“It was moving so fast that we didn’t have time to work on all of these things we’re identifying right now,” he said then. “The push was to get the warning system up, so there wasn’t time for people to work out all the small details.”
Hara’s report calls for a reorganization of the agency.
It’s unclear whether Hara’s recommendations would fit with federal legislation recently co-introduced by U.S. Brian Schatz to take the missile-warning responsibilities from the state and hand them to federal authorities instead.
Ige said the state would welcome the federal government’s participation.
Tuesday’s report also supported last month’s findings by retired Brig. Gen. Bruce Oliveira, who specifically investigated what caused the Jan. 13 incident. Hara’s report points to a breakdown in leadership and management at HEMA, but it doesn’t let the “button pusher” off the hook either.
The new report said that HEMA leadership was kept in the dark on personnel issues involving the man who issued the alert from State Warning Point in the Diamond Head Crater.
The button pusher, whom Civil Beat and other organizations have declined to name, was later fired.
Ige asserted that “Hawaii is ahead of the game” because other states aren’t dealing with this issue. He added that Hara won’t have to submit a follow-up report in 30 days, as previously ordered, because the one issued Tuesday was comprehensive.
Read the full All-Hazards Preparedness Improvement Action Plan and Report here: