Missile-alert mistake feeds doubts about a real emergency

This smartphone screen capture shows a false incoming ballistic missile emergency alert sent from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency system on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)
Vern Miyagi, Administrator, HEMA, left, and Hawaii Gov. David Ige addressed the media Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, during a press conference at the Hawaii Emergency Management Center at Diamond Head Saturday following the false alarm issued of a missile launch on Hawaii. A push alert that warned of an incoming ballistic missile to Hawaii and sent residents into a full-blown panic was a mistake, state emergency officials said. (George F. Lee /The Star-Advertiser via AP)
This smartphone screen capture shows a false incoming ballistic missile emergency alert sent from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency system on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Jennifer Kelleher)
Hawaii Gov. David Ige and Maj. Gen. Joe Logan were on hand for a press conference at Civil Defense at Diamond Head Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, following the false alarm issued of a missile launch on Hawaii. A push alert that warned of an incoming ballistic missile to Hawaii and sent residents into a full-blown panic was a mistake, state emergency officials said. (George F. Lee /The Star-Advertiser via AP)
In this Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018 photo provided by Civil Beat, cars drive past a highway sign that says "MISSILE ALERT ERROR THERE IS NO THREAT" on the H-1 Freeway in Honolulu. The state emergency officials announced human error as cause for a statewide announcement of an incoming missile strike alert that was sent to mobile phones. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat via AP)
Diamond Head, an extinct volcanic crater, and high-rises are seen in Honolulu on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. A push alert that warned of an incoming ballistic missile to Hawaii and sent residents into a full-blown panic was a mistake, state emergency officials said. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)
This Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, photo provided by Jhune Liwanag shows a highway median sign broadcasting a message of "There is no threat" in Kaneohe, Hawaii. State emergency officials mistakenly sent out an emergency alert warning of an imminent missile strike, sending islanders into a panic. (Jhune Liwanag via The AP)

HONOLULU — A blunder that caused more than a million people in Hawaii to fear that they were about to be struck by a nuclear missile fed skepticism Sunday about the government's ability to keep them informed in a real emergency.

Residents and tourists alike remained rattled a day after the mistaken alert was blasted out to cellphones across the islands with a warning to seek immediate shelter and the ominous statement "This is not a drill."

"My confidence in our so-called leaders' ability to disseminate this vital information has certainly been tarnished," said Patrick Day, who sprang from bed when the alert was issued Saturday morning. "I would have to think twice before acting on any future advisory."

The erroneous warning was sent during a shift change at the state's Emergency Management Agency when someone doing a routine test hit the live alert button, state officials said.

They tried to assure residents there would be no repeat false alarms. The agency changed protocols to require that two people send an alert and made it easier to cancel a false alarm — a process that took nearly 40 minutes.

President Donald Trump said the federal government will "get involved" with Hawaii, but didn't provide any additional details.

The error sparked a doomsday panic across the islands known as a laid-back paradise. Parents clutched their children, huddled in bathtubs and said prayers. Students bolted across the University of Hawaii campus to take cover in buildings. Drivers abandoned cars on a highway and took shelter in a tunnel. Others resigned themselves to a fate they could not control and simply waited for the attack.

The 911 system for the island of Oahu was overwhelmed with more than 5,000 calls. There were no major emergencies during the false alarm, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said.

An investigation into what went wrong was underway Sunday at the Federal Communications Commission, which sets rules for wireless emergency alerts sent by local, state or federal officials to warn of the threat of hurricanes, wildfires, flash flooding and to announce searches for missing children.

The state of Hawaii "did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement, calling the mistake "absolutely unacceptable."

"False alerts undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies," he said.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen urged Americans not to lose faith in their government.

"I would hate for anybody not to abide by alerts and warnings coming from government systems," Nielsen said on "Fox News Sunday." ''They can trust government systems. We test them every day. This is a very unfortunate mistake, but these alerts are vital. Seconds and minutes can save lives."

With mobile phones ubiquitous, wireless alerts can quickly disseminate information to a wide number of users, but there have been concerns about creating a panic if they are sent too broadly.

Authorities were criticized for not sending an alert to mobile phones when fires ripped through Northern California in October, killing 40 people. Officials had decided not to use the system because they couldn't target them precisely enough and feared a wider broadcast would lead to mass evacuations, including people not in danger, snarling traffic that would hamper firefighting and rescues efforts.

Lisa Foxen, a social worker and mother of two young children in east Honolulu, said she expects Hawaii officials to make necessary changes and restore trust in the system. The best thing to come out of the scare, she said, was that it pushed her family to come up with a plan if there is a real threat.

"I kind of was just almost like a deer in headlights," she said. "I knew what to do in a hurricane. I knew what to do in an earthquake. But the missile thing is new to me."

The false alarm triggered a broader discussion about national security at a time when North Korea has been flexing its muscles by launching test missiles and bragging about its nuclear capability. Its leader, Kim Jong Un, has also exchanged insults on Twitter with President Donald Trump about their arsenals.

The standoff has whipped up nuclear fears on Hawaii and led the islands to revive Cold War-era siren tests that drew international attention.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat, said officials should be held accountable for the "epic failure of leadership" behind the warning. She said the nuclear threat underscored the need for Trump to meet with Kim to work out differences without preconditions.

"The people of Hawaii are paying the price now for decades of failed leadership in this country" by setting "unrealistic preconditions," she said. "The leaders of this country need to experience that same visceral understanding of how lives are at stake."

Philip Simmons, an orchestral conductor, said the false alarm was one of the most horrifying events of his life, and he had no idea what to do. He said everyone from Gov. David Ige to the president should resign.

"The government has totally blown this," Simmons said. "They're completely inept at protecting the people of this country and notifying them of what's happening."

The mistake was not the first for the state's warning system. During a test last month, 12 of the state's 386 sirens played an ambulance siren. In the tourist hub of Waikiki, the sirens were barely audible, prompting officials to add more sirens and reposition ones already in place.

___

This version of this story corrects the spelling of the first name of U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

___

Melley reported from Los Angeles. Tom Strong in Washington contributed to this report.

You may also interested in

Turkish, Russian officials to discuss solution for Syria

Aug 10, 2016

Turkey's foreign minister says Turkish foreign ministry, military and intelligence officials will travel to Russia for discussions on finding a solution to the Syria conflict

Florida officials go into damage-control mode over Zika

Aug 6, 2016

Worried about Florida's all-important tourism industry, state officials are going into damage-control mode over Zika

Police: Woman killed by Florida officer in academy exercise

Aug 10, 2016

A police "shoot/ don't shoot" demonstration went shockingly awry when an officer shot and killed a 73-year-old former librarian with what police said was real ammunition used by mistake at an event designed to bring police and the public together

People also read these

'American Crime Story' writers focusing on Hurricane Katrina

Aug 10, 2016

An executive producer behind 'American Crime Story,' the anthology series for FX, says they're taking 'great care' with casting of the season which will focus on Hurricane Katrina

TV executive predicts 500-show bubble destined to deflate

Aug 9, 2016

Television viewers know there's a mind-boggling array of shows to attempt to watch, but FX Networks chief executive John Landgraf predicts that change is coming

10 Things to Know for Thursday

Aug 11, 2016

Among 10 Things to Know: Criticism may be slowing Trump train; 'Grim Sleeper' sent to death row; versatile ESPN sportscaster dies at 61

Weather, 20 December
Houston Weather
+7

High: +11° Low: -2°

Humidity: 83%

Wind: NNE - 7 KPH

Canberra Weather
+27

High: +27° Low: +17°

Humidity: 87%

Wind: W - 20 KPH

Roissy-en-France Weather
+6

High: +6° Low: -5°

Humidity: 87%

Wind: ENE - 7 KPH

Florence Weather
+9

High: +9° Low: +6°

Humidity: 97%

Wind: ENE - 17 KPH

Parga Weather
+7

High: +16° Low: +4°

Humidity: 100%

Wind: SE - 25 KPH