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What to do if the Ballistic Missile Alert was Real

January 15, 2018, 4:13 PM HST · Updated January 15, 4:17 PM
Nikki Schenfeld · 92 Comments
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The false ballistic missile alert sent to people in Hawaiʻi on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, was a grim reminder of the nuclear threat that North Korea poses to the US amid rising tensions.

PC: Nikki Schenfeld

The emergency system alert was pushed to smartphones statewide at 8:07 a.m. HST and read: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

As residents and tourists alike ran to safety, called loved ones, and prepared for the worst, it wasn’t until 8:45 a.m., that a second emergency alert was sent out that stated, “There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.”

Hawaiʻi would soon learn the false message was sent out by a Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency employee who “hit the wrong button.”  Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai called the false alert “absolutely unacceptable.” He added, “It caused a wave of panic across the state—worsened by the 38-minute delay before a correction alert was issued. Moreover, false alerts undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies,” said Pai.

What Would Happen If The Alert Was Real

  • If a missile was headed to Hawaiʻi, the public would be unaware of any danger for the first five minutes.
  • US satellites would detect a missile launch immediately due to the infrared heat the missile gives off and US commanders would quickly calculate the path and the estimated target point within minutes of the launch.
  • The US Pacific Command, based in Hawaiʻi, would then determine if the missile poses a threat and would make a quick decision about shooting down the missile.
  • The US Pacific Command would then send an alert to Hawaiʻi’s State Warning Point, which would activate the public warning system.
  • The Statewide Outdoor Attack Warning Siren would activate and an alert warning advisory would be sent to mobile phones, radio and televisions within two minutes.
  • The President would be briefed, but if the threat is imminent, the US military has the right to self-defense — and could make the decision to shoot down the missile.
  • Once the sirens sound, residents and visitors will have less than 12 to 15 minutes before missile impact.
  • Residents and visitors are advised to immediately seek shelter in a building or other substantial
    structure.

According to the Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency website regarding ballistic missile preparedness, there are currently no designated shelters in the State of Hawaiʻi. The short warning time would not allow for residents or visitors to locate such a shelter in advance of missile impact.

US authorities believe that Honolulu and the island of Oʻahu would be the primary target of a North Korean nuclear attack. However, it is uncertain if neighbor islands would be affected. “North Korean missile technology may not be adequately advanced to accurately target a specific island or location. Although most analysts believe the desired target would be Oʻahu given the concentration of military and government facilities, a missile may stray and impact the open ocean or even a neighbor island. All areas of the State of Hawaiʻi must consider the possibility of missile impact.”

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People should get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned

Once the sirens alert the public of the threat, HI-EMA recommends the following:

1. If you are indoors, stay indoors well away from windows.
Surviving the immediate effects of a nuclear detonation (blast, shock, thermal radiation, initial nuclear radiation) requires sheltering in resistant structures
2. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building preferably a concrete structure such as a commercial building or parking structure.
• You may have only minutes to take protective action – take immediate action without delay
3. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a nearby building or lie flat on the ground.
• There are no designated blast or fallout shelters in Hawaiʻi
4. DO NOT look at the flash of light.
Light generated by the weapon will damage unprotected eyes

In a high-rise building, the safest place above ground is in the center of the building.
The worst building to stay in is a single standing house, particularly made of wood.

A preparedness website run by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security says there are three factors for protecting oneself from radiation and fallout; distance, shielding and time.

  • Distance – the more distance between you and the fallout particles, the better. An underground area such as a home or office building basement offers more protection than the first floor of a building.
  • Shielding – the heavier and denser the materials – thick walls, concrete, bricks, books and earth – between you and the fallout particles, the better.
  • Time – fallout radiation loses its intensity fairly rapidly. In time, you will be able to leave the shelter. Radioactive fallout poses the greatest threat to people during the first two weeks, by which time it has declined to about 1% of its initial radiation level.

If unable to get inside immediately, FEMA says:

  • Take cover behind anything that might offer protection.
  • Do not look at the flash or fireball.
  • Lie flat on the ground and cover your head.
  • If the explosion is some distance away, it could take 30 seconds or more for the blast wave to hit.
  • Take shelter as soon as you can, even if you are many miles from ground zero where the attack occurred – radioactive fallout can be carried by the winds for hundreds of miles.

Impact

HI-EMA states that 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% of the population would survive the direct effects of such an explosion.

The Emergency Preparedness document says that a single-kiloton (a unit of explosive power equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT) nuclear weapon detonated at 1,000 feet could kill almost 18,000 people and cause 50,000 to 120,000 trauma and burn casualties. (Reminder: the document is based off an attack on Oʻahu).

  • Up to 30% of survivors would suffer acute radiation syndrome
  • Widespread building collapses and structural fires
  • Severe damage to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, Hickam AFB, and Honolulu Harbor
  • Damage to hospitals, government buildings, roads and other critical infrastructure.
  • Loss of electrical and water utilities
  • Loss of land mobile radio, broadcast radio, television, cellular telephone and internet.

If you are in the blast radius and still alive, stay indoors as radiation fall out is imminent.
Residual radiation and nuclear fallout could last as long as 14 days, making it unsafe to venture outside until the threat has subsided. If outside the blast radius, be mindful that fallout can affect you. It’s ideal to wear pants, long sleeve shirt, hat etc. and to minimize your time outdoors for a few days if possible.

According to the 7:10 rule of thumb, seven hours after the explosion, the radiation drops to a tenth its original level. After two days, it’s a tenth of that, or a hundredth the original. After two weeks, the dose rate of radiation from the fallout is a thousandth of the original level.

“Debris including soil, fragments of destroyed buildings and other material will be drawn into the cloud of a nuclear detonation and propelled into the sky. This debris will begin to settle back to earth within hours,” the document says.

According to FEMA, radiation levels are extremely dangerous after a nuclear detonation but the levels reduce rapidly. FEMA says people can expect to stay inside for at least 24 hours unless told otherwise by authorities.

HI-EMA recommends the following:

1. Remain sheltered until you are told it is safe to leave or two weeks (14 days) have passed, whichever comes first.
Following the detonation, sheltering from radioactive fallout for up to 14 days is critically important
2. You may be advised that it is safe to leave your shelter for short periods of time to locate food, water and medical care.
Public may need to briefly leave their shelters to locate essential supplies and equipment
3. Electrical, water and other utilities may be severely disrupted or unavailable.
Emergency Management will assess residual radiation levels and advise when sheltering can be discontinued

If you were outside during or after the blast, get clean as soon as possible, to remove radioactive material that may have settled on your body.

  • Remove your clothing to keep radioactive material from spreading. Removing the outer layer of clothing can remove up to 90% of radioactive material.
  • If practical, place your contaminated clothing in a plastic bag and seal or tie the bag. Place the bag as far away as possible from humans and animals so that the radiation it gives off does not affect others.
  • When possible, take a shower with lots of soap and water to help remove radioactive contamination. Do not scrub or scratch the skin.
  • Wash your hair with shampoo or soap and water. Do not use conditioner in your hair because it will bind radioactive material to your hair, keeping it from rinsing out easily.
  • Gently blow your nose and wipe your eyelids and eyelashes with a clean wet cloth. Gently wipe your ears.
  • If you cannot shower, use a wipe or clean wet cloth to wipe your skin that was not covered by clothing.

1. Listen to local AM-FM radio stations for official information.
• Local AM-FM broadcast radio is most survivable and may be useful in advising the public post-detonation
2. Cell phone, television, radio and internet services will be severely disrupted or unavailable.
• Other communication technologies may be damaged by weapons effects such as EMP1
3. Small portable walkie-talkies may give you communication with nearby shelters.
• FRS2 and GMRS radios are widely available in the community and may be useful in keeping people in communication with one another

When a nuclear weapon detonates, one of the direct effects produced is called an Electromagnetic Pulse. EMP has the potential of destroying electrical devices and telecommunications systems, including electrical power and other essential utilities.

Operation Ivy, KING Event – The KING Event was detonated on 15 November 1952, Enewetak Atoll. PC: National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library

HI-EMA says that broadcast stations many miles from the explosion (such as on another island) will survive EMP effects. “Our current plans are to utilize AM and FM broadcast radio stations on unaffected islands to provide essential information to the public. This means residents and visitors should include a battery-powered AM-FM radio in their 14-day survival kit.”

After Nuclear Blast

People in most of the areas that would be affected could be allowed to come out of shelter within a few days and, if necessary, evacuate to unaffected areas. The heaviest fallout would be limited to the area at or downwind from the explosion. It might be necessary for those in the areas with highest radiation levels to shelter for up to a month.

Returning to Your Home

Keep listening to the radio and television for news about what to do, where to go and places to avoid.
Stay away from damaged areas. Stay away from areas marked “radiation hazard” or “HAZMAT.”

Be Prepared

The following are things you can do to protect yourself, your family and your property in the event of a nuclear blast.

    • Build an Emergency Supply Kit
  • Make a Family Emergency Plan
  • If your community has no designated fallout shelters, make a list of potential shelters near your home, workplace and school, such as basements, subways, tunnels, or the windowless center area of middle floors in a high-rise building.
  • During periods of heightened threat increase your disaster supplies to be adequate for up to two weeks.

Make sure your emergency kit is stocked with the items on the checklist below. Most of the items are inexpensive and easy to find, and any one of them could save your life. After an emergency, you may need to survive on your own for several days. Being prepared means having your own food, water and other supplies to last for at least 72 hours. A disaster supplies kit is a collection of basic items your household may need in the event of an emergency.

Basic Disaster Supplies Kit

To assemble your kit, store items in airtight plastic bags and put your entire disaster supplies kit in one or two easy-to-carry containers such as plastic bins or a duffel bag.A basic emergency supply kit could include the following recommended items:

  • Water – one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
  • Food – at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
  • Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert
  • Flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Extra batteries
  • Whistle to signal for help
  • Dust mask to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
  • Manual can opener for food
  • Local maps
  • Cell phone with chargers and a backup battery

Additional Emergency Supplies
Consider adding the following items to your emergency supply kit based on your individual needs:

  • Prescription medications
  • Non-prescription medications such as pain relievers, anti-diarrhea medication, antacids or laxatives
  • Glasses and contact lense solution
  • Infant formula, bottles, diapers, wipes, diaper rash cream
  • Pet food and extra water for your pet
  • Cash or traveler’s checks
  • Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records saved electronically or in a waterproof, portable container
  • Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person
  • Complete change of clothing appropriate for your climate and sturdy shoes
  • Household chlorine bleach and medicine dropper to disinfect water
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Matches in a waterproof container
  • Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
  • Mess kits, paper cups, plates, paper towels and plastic utensils
  • Paper and pencil
  • Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children

Maintaining Your Kit
After assembling your kit remember to maintain it so it’s ready when needed:

    • Keep canned food in a cool, dry place
  • Store boxed food in tightly closed plastic or metal containers
  • Replace expired items as needed
  • Re-think your needs every year and update your kit as your family’s needs change.

Kit Storage Locations
Since you do not know where you will be when an emergency occurs, prepare supplies for home, work and vehicles.

Home: Keep this kit in a designated place and have it ready in case you have to leave your home quickly. Make sure all family members know where the kit is kept.

Work: Be prepared to shelter at work for at least 24 hours. Your work kit should include food, water and other necessities like medicines, as well as comfortable walking shoes, stored in a “grab and go” case.

Vehicle: In case you are stranded, keep a kit of emergency supplies in your car.

It’s also a good idea to print this article or FEMA’s recommended kit and safety tips following a nuclear attack, as information via internet will not be available if near the impact zone.

Nikki Schenfeld
Nikki joined the Maui Now team in 2016 as a writer/reporter. Originally from Chicago, she has had internships with CBS2 Chicago and Comcast SportsNet Chicago where she had the opportunity to interview some of Chicago's best athletes. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago in 2010 with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcast Journalism. She moved to Maui in 2013.

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