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Two Minutes To Midnight, Thirty-Eight To Safety: Nuclear Preparedness in the Wake of Hawaii’s Debacle

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By: Alix Bruce

On January 13, 2018, Hawaii was in a state of terror for a full thirty-eight minutes when an emergency management worker sent out an alarm that a ballistic missile was inbound to the islands. The alert was false—whether it was actually the fault of the emergency worker or the result of a system failure is not yet established—but an investigation led by the Federal Communications Commission into the false alarm has revealed a glaring problem not only for Hawaii, but for other states, and even the capital itself: nobody is really sure what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

It’s not just Hawaii. Although Honolulu rests about 4,600 miles from Pyongyang (just edging into the danger zone if North Korea ever actually manages to get a missile that is viable through all stages of flight, to include re-entry and detonation of a surviving warhead), other states along the West Coast have had to confront the fact that they have little to no preparation on the state and municipal levels as to how to respond to a nuclear attack. In the case of Washington state, the state emergency management division is outright prohibited from preparing for evacuation or relocation. The thinking at the time? Anti-nuclear activists in 1984 decided thatcitizens
shouldn’t get comfortable with the idea that nuclear war could be survivable.”

The Revised Code of Washington, section 38.52.030 provides state coordinators for radioactive and hazardous waste emergency response programs, alongside programs for emergency assistance to “individuals within the state who are victims of a natural, technological, or human-caused disaster,” but states, “[t]he comprehensive, all-hazard emergency plan [. . .] may not include preparation for emergency evacuation or relocation of residents in anticipation of nuclear attack.” Essentially, Washington’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan is not comprehensive. While in the 1980s this was, perhaps, more logical, when viewed in the light of the policies and attitudes of the Trump administration (even though there is disagreement regarding how likely conflict between North Korea and the U.S. is), the Washington state’s lack of preparedness is a disaster waiting to happen. Currently, the state’s lawmakers are attempting to undo the 1984 provision, but the bill, titled H.B. 2214, remains in committee. Until the language is removed from the books—and that only happens if H.B. 2214 is passed—Washington state has no contingency plans.  

Prior to the false missile alert on January 13, Hawaii lawmakers and administrators had been quietly trying to prepare for how to respond to a potential attack, including holding closed-door meetings in September of 2017, but the thirty-eight minutes of scrambling on January 13 just goes to show how unprepared most state governments are in the event of an actual nuclear strike. Even the aftermath of the incoming missile scare has become a cautionary tale: at the time of this writing, the emergency worker allegedly responsible for the false missile alert is intending to file a lawsuit against the state of Hawaii for defamation. Immediately following the incident, Hawaii Governor David Ige stated there was a mistake in standard procedure, and that “an employee pushed the wrong button.” The employee himself—since terminated from his position—has claimed he was unaware that the incident was an exercise, and that he did “what [he] was trained to do.” The emergency management worker remains unnamed in all media coverage of the event so far, as he has received multiple death threats for his part in the incident. No matter which side prevails legally in this matter, it goes to show that Hawaii—and the United States as a whole—are woefully underprepared to handle an actual missile attack. In the case of Washington, D.C., procedures for how the Cabinet should respond to a domestic missile have not been tested in thirty years.

In the wake of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ board moving the Doomsday Clock forward to two minutes to midnight on January 25—the closest the clock has been to midnight since the 1950s—there are stark concerns as to the level of preparedness on state and municipal levels. While Hawaii is reexamining and developing emergency preparedness plans and had been doing so prior to the panic on January 13, Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness is finally taking down thousands of misleading fallout shelter signs in New York City—signs which point to bunkers which have not existed since the 1970s. Considering the level of saber-rattling coming out of both North Korea and President Trump’s Twitter account, specifically, that Mr. Trump’s nuclear button is “much bigger & more powerful [than Kim Jong Un’s]” this lack of preparation in not only West Coast states and Hawaii, but in D.C., New York City, and other metropolitan centers could result in the loss of thousands of lives.

In any event, Hawaii has at the very least implemented a monthly test of a new warning siren—on the first business day of every month, a siren test for a nuclear attack warning rings out at 11:45 AM.

In the wake of Hawaii’s thirty-eight minutes of terror on January 13, 2016, it has become extremely apparent that the status quo in the U.S. regarding emergency preparedness for missile strikes is appallingly lacking. With New York City only just beginning to take down signs for dismantled fallout shelters, Hawaii’s thirty-eight minutes of absolute chaos, D.C.’s dangerously outdated procedures for Cabinet response, and Washington’s absolute prohibition on any kind of preparation, the U.S. is potentially teetering on the edge of a disaster—especially as the Doomsday Clock marches ever-closer to midnight. If nothing is done, then it could potentially cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The question, at this point, is if the problem can be repaired quickly enough to keep up with the international landscape.


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