From skeptical to scared: West Hawaii recount how they processed false missile alarm

KAILUA-KONA — South of town at Alii Villas, Sean Aldrich and his wife, visiting from Alaska, were sitting in bed Saturday morning drinking coffee at the condo before heading to the beach with the rest of the family for his birthday.

Down in Honalo, Renkio Hanato-Wells was at home preparing for his daughter’s first birthday party at Harold H. Higashihara Park.

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Farther south in Captain Cook, Ashley McCullough and Anthony Young were at home, where Young was in the yard watering the lawn.

And at Kaya’s, between Honalo and Kainaliu, employee Emiliegh Tena was on her first day back at work after vacation.

All in all, it was shaping up to be another great day in Kona.

Then came the alert, warning people of possible impending death. Throughout the state, alerts about a “ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii” started coming in, warning people to “seek immediate shelter.”

“I was wondering if it was real,” said Joe Doria, who was heading to Harold H. Higashihara Park to attend his niece’s baby’s birthday party when he got the alert. He said he was “half and half” on whether he believed the threat was real, but that he turned around and started to head home.

Back at Kaya’s, Tena’s phone went off on the cafe’s loudspeaker as alerts started coming into patrons’ phones.

At first, Tena said, she swiped it away, thinking it was maybe a drill.

“I think we were all kinda just confused to be honest,” she said, “It’s like, almost, like it wasn’t real.”

But for others, that same alert seemed startlingly legit.

“I was frightened,” McCullough said of getting the alert in Captain Cook. “My body got tense. My dad called immediately at that moment. He told me not to worry and then I went and kinda just stopped worrying.”

For many, there wasn’t much they could do but wait for more information.

Aldrich’s wife, B.J. Aldrich, said after she got the alert on her phone while drinking coffee in bed, the couple and the rest of the family turned on the TV and saw the alert was being broadcast on a local channel as well. But they were also confused that it wasn’t being reported on national networks.

And while Sean Aldrich said he was confident any missile wouldn’t hit Hawaii Island, the family gathered in an Alii Villas bathroom.

“But we took it seriously,” said B.J. Aldrich, “enough to where we gathered in the bathroom.”

They also took a selfie, she added.

Young and McCullough meanwhile carried on at home in Captain Cook, where Young was in the garden watering the lawn.

“I was like, ‘this is how I like to live my life,’” said Young. “If this is my time, this is my time.”

“And I was OK with that,” added McCullough. “I was like, ‘all right.’”

“We’re in paradise,” Young said. “We don’t have much to worry about.”

Hanato-Wells, who heard the report on the radio at home preparing for the birthday party planned in the park, said he believed it when it came out.

“I thought it was real; I was like ‘Ho, brah, Korea actually did it,” he said, laughing.

People were calling him, he said, and he kept cooking and getting stuff ready for the party.

After an extended wait for whatever was to come, word started trickling in that the threat was a false alarm.

Hanato-Wells said about 20 minutes after he first heard the report, someone messaged him to let him know it was fake.

“I was like ‘Oh, OK. Never mind. Let’s go party,” he said.

At the cafe, Tena said, their first sign all was well came via Twitter.

“At first I was like, ‘Well, are we going to believe Twitter?’” she said. “But it was like the only site that we could find that said anything about it at all, which was kind of crazy.”

Then she saw the tweet came from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who tweeted at 8:19 a.m. — more than 10 minutes after the first alert and 20 minutes before the official correction — that the alert “is a false alarm,” and that there was no incoming missile.

Young and McCullough also said it was Gabbard’s tweet that finally let them know the threat was a false alarm.

“Kudos to Tulsi Gabbard,” Young said. “She’s on top of it, definitely connected.”

Birthday party-goer Doria said it took about 30-45 minutes before he heard the threat wasn’t real.

And while his first reaction was relief that Hawaii hadn’t been hit by a missile, his second thought was what if it happens again.

“If it really happens, what are you going to really do?” he asked. “If anything, it’s an awareness of preparedness, to prepare. It’s a warning. It could happen and just to prepare yourself for it just in case.”

Some went looking for answers about what steps and precautions they should take. Kawika Bacus, for example, went to the Keauhou Fire Station for advice.

“I was upset,” he said of the morning’s confusion. “I was upset but I was relieved at the same time.”

He said he doesn’t have anything like a panic room, cases of water or a safety kit, adding it made him realize his own unpreparedness.

“My oldest is 5,” he said. “I don’t want to look at him and say, ‘All we’re going to do is pray;’ there should be a plan.”

The response in the cafe was a mixed bag, Tena said, as everyone handled the stress of what they’d just experienced in their own way — some laughing, others just taking a moment to decompress.

“And then to realize, like, that’s a situation that’s maybe possible in the political environment that we live in,” she added.

But as relieved as all were that there was no missile, many were still left wondering how a false alarm like this — particularly one with the phrase “This is not a drill” in all capital letters — could happen in the first place and how the false alarm will cause people to react in the event a real threat arises, comparing it to The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

“If it did happen again then I feel like everyone’s going to be wondering, ‘Is it just a joke, or is it just a mistake?’” Tena said. “Which is like, that’s not what it should be. It should be like, we react.”

And not many people were convinced the state and county were prepared to handle a real threat.

“No, you gotta be kidding me,” said Doria. “For real? Are you serious?”

But then again, who is?

“To be honest with you, nobody’s prepared,” he said. “Nobody was prepared for that, I bet you. Maybe a small handful but not too many people.”

If anything, Doria said, the county should use this as chance to learn.

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“And that’s the best you can do, I would think,” he said. “But now people are thinking about it now. They can be like, ‘What do we do?’”

“I mean, take it as a learning lesson and be prepared yourself.”