Around 8:05 AM on Saturday, January 13th, someone at the Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency managed to create a fairly spectacular emergency by sending out the following false alarm: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Per the headline that day in the New York Times, “Hawaii Panics After Alert About Incoming Missile Is Sent in Error.” The story quotes Hawai’i’s governor, David Ige, as saying “What happened today was totally unacceptable. Many in our community were deeply affected by this. I am sorry for the pain and confusion that anyone might have experienced.”[i] Might have experienced? I remember seeing footage of scores of people running in sheer terror. As the Washington Post put it the next day, “The false warning sparked a wave of panic as thousands of people, many assuming they had only minutes to live, scrambled to take shelter and say their final goodbyes to loved ones. The situation was exacerbated by a 38-minute gap between the initial alert and a subsequent wireless alert stating the missile warning was a mistake.”[ii]
An investigation immediately began into how such a thing could happen. The governor did a mea culpa when he admitted he didn’t tweet out a retraction immediately because he forgot his Twitter login and password information.[iii] The Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency put out a timeline of events, outlining what led up to the mistake and what steps were taken after.[iv] The only “steps” that weren’t referenced, in that rather dispassionate statement, were the frantic steps taken by the running crowds.
Lawsuits over “the pain and confusion” suffered by those in Hawai’i, and the friends and loved ones immediately contacted by them, haven’t surfaced yet but I can only imagine they will. When I heard about the mistake in Hawai’i that day, my first thought was how mad I’d be if that happened to me. I thought about what I would do if I got that kind of alert on my phone. What if I was away from my family? Would I have enough time to get home or would I just call them to say I love you, good-bye? Even thinking about being in that situation was difficult and, then, knowing it was all because of someone pushing the “wrong button”?[v]
For 38 minutes that day, there were people who thought they were going to die. Thirty-eight terrifying minutes of terror and clarity. As a professional therapist, I’ve spent time with people who thought they were going to die but didn’t; they lived and found themselves changed by the experience. They shared the pain and confusion, the anger, but also about how that brush with imminent death produced an intensity of focus about their lives, their priorities, and the ones they loved. For some, their point of impact was a harrowing close-call, over in seconds but with lasting aftershocks. For others, they waited more than 38 minutes for the “false alarm” message to be delivered by, usually, some sort of medical professional.
Some in Hawai’i may decide to sue. I’m not sure how far they’ll get. Some may decide to forget and just move on. Again, I’m not sure how far they’ll get. I don’t know how you could forget something like that, nor, from my experience, if you’d want to. No one would want to experience such a shock but, for those who have, perhaps there is a way to use that shock to an advantage. So much of our lives are spent in, almost, mindless auto-pilot, taking care of necessary, but mundane, things. A shock like what happened in Hawai’i can be a sort of wake-up call, a douse of ice-cold water, granted, but a wake-up call all the same.
Thirty-eight minutes of terror or 38 minutes of clarity? What happened that day was, as the governor said, “unacceptable” but unusable? Perhaps not.
Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE
and author of 36 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years
ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities
for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center •
A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington,
creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health
issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and