LIHUE, Hawaii—The wail of an air raid siren cut through the humid December air for the first time in decades to warn of an imminent nuclear attack. Holiday shoppers at a palm tree-lined outdoor mall on the Hawaiian island of Kauai showed little reaction though. Others around the state reported not hearing the siren at all.
The attack never came, of course. It was a drill, the first in decades.
One resident, Adrian Diaz, a bank employee on his lunch break outside a Starbucks, was following local media and expected the siren. “It’s not going to be on the soundtrack of anybody’s album, but I think it’s definitely a good alarm to have.”
On Dec. 1, Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) initiated a new monthly test of a siren that would sound in the event of a nuclear attack warning people to “Get Inside. Stay Inside. Stay Tuned.”
In a public presentation on Oahu, HI-EMA administrator Vern Miyagi said that with only 12-15 minutes advance notice in case of a North Korean missile launch against the islands, his agency has a responsibility to inform the public how to prepare and what to expect.
Hawaii already has 384 warning sirens statewide and is increasing the count to nearly 500. A steady tone siren to warn of natural disasters is already tested monthly, but Miyagi said, “For 2017, of course, we’ll have something for nuclear attack.”
Stressing such an event is “very unlikely,” Miyagi explained how planning models indicate a nuclear strike could target Honolulu’s international airport, harbor, or Hickam Airforce Base near Pearl Harbor.
Models project a nuclear strike would produce severe damage to critical infrastructure and buildings and a loss of emergency services, communications and utilities with up to 120,000 trauma and burn victims and close to 18,000 fatalities. The state says it must also consider the possibility of neighbor islands like Maui or Kauai being hit intentionally or by accident.
Some critics believe officials are downplaying potential impacts but Miyagi insists, “We’re not holding anything back. We’re not making anything prettier. This is what we anticipate will happen. We want to make sure the public understands. It’s not a good thing.”
David Santoro, director and senior fellow of nuclear policy at the Pacific Forum/Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu, isn’t opposed to Hawaii’s nuclear preparedness efforts but says people shouldn’t get too worried.
“North Korea isn’t an immediate threat and the U.S. has been ‘threatened’ by other nuclear-armed states for a long time,” Santoro wrote in an email. “Still, it’s good for Hawaii residents to be aware of the problem and prepare in the event of an incident.”
Residents are advised to stock two weeks’ worth of food, water, and medicine for natural hazards like tsunami and hurricanes but also in case of a nuclear attack, which could cut off supplies brought in by air and sea.
If U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) detected a Hawaii-bound missile, it would immediately notify HI-EMA, which is located in an underground tunnel inside Honolulu’s Diamond Head crater. The agency would activate the statewide siren warning the public to shelter in place, ideally in the center of a sturdy concrete building that could hopefully withstand the searing flash and blast wave of an explosion.
Hawaii’s Cold War-era fallout shelters, long disused, are no longer viable and there are no plans to evacuate residents or tourists from one island to another.
Although military installations are assumed to be targets Miyagi said, “We’re very fortunate that we have PACOM right inside Honolulu... as soon as they determine that it is inbound or it is a threat to Hawaii, they will notify us via a secure telephone.”
Hawaii’s Department of Education spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said Hawaii’s public schools have been coordinating with HI-EMA but have no special drills planned for a missile attack.
“We work with HI-EMA on nuclear preparedness planning, practices and emergency procedures. Schools were provided the HI-EMA information regarding Ballistic Missile Preparedness and sheltering in place guidance,” Dela Cruz said by email.
Hawaii Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa said, “I don’t think any major U.S. city or state is adequately prepared for what has been, until more recent times, an unthinkable event.”
In written responses, Hanabusa and Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono both voiced support for sanctions and criticized President Trump’s use of Twitter to taunt the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un while failing to adequately pursue serious diplomacy.
“In fact,” Hirono said, “[Trump] has undermined his own Secretary of State on the importance of diplomatic talks, and has failed to make important nominations such as an ambassador to South Korea and an Assistant Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific Affairs.”
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said Trump needs to understand Kim Jong Un is developing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against U.S.-led regime change. The toppling of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, and Trump’s repeated threats to abandon the Iran nuclear deal tells North Korea that the U.S. can’t be trusted, Gabbard said.
“We must end our regime change policies and wars, and seriously pursue diplomatic negotiations with North Korea, without preconditions, to de-escalate and ultimately denuclearize North Korea,” Gabbard said in a written statement.
Hawaii is one of the few places in the U.S. to take concrete steps in preparation for a possible North Korean nuclear attack. Others include Ventura County (PDF), north of Los Angeles, and Guam, which Kim Jong Un threatened to strike in August.
Guam’s Homeland Security and the Office of Civil Defense are increasing the territory’s all hazards alert warning system and issued “imminent missile threat” guidelines (PDF), but, like Hawaii, has no designated fallout shelters and would have less than 15-20 minutes’ warning to “shelter in place.”
Some Hawaii residents are looking beyond sirens and shelters, urging local leaders to take a more active role in pursuing diplomacy with North Korea. Koohan Paik, an Asia-Pacific policy analyst on Hawaii Island, introduced a resolution calling for the U.S. “to seek a peaceful diplomatic solution to reduce tensions in the Korean peninsula.” The Hawaii County Council passed the resolution with an 8-0 vote.
Paik, whose own father was born in what is now North Korea said, “A peace resolution sets a tone of aloha, while nuclear attack drills normalize fear and conflict. We need to visualize diplomacy, not a nuclear attack.”
On Oahu, Christine Ahn, international coordinator with Women Cross the DMZ, says she would rather see greater investment in supporting diplomacy than a “fear mongering campaign.”
“A wise move,” Ahn said, “would be to call for halting the war drills scheduled for the winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. That would be a game changer and would signal to the North Koreans that we are ready to talk.”
University of Chicago history professor Bruce Cumings, a Korean history authority, believes “North Korea is not going to hit Hawaii because that would lead to the U.S. obliterating the regime.” In an email Cumings said, “If public educators would focus on our historic responsibility for the North Korea problem—including utterly demolishing the country via air campaigns during the Korean war—we might get somewhere.”
In South Korea, where the risk of war is greatest, attack drills have been met with little sense of urgency in a nation that has grown accustomed to decades of fiery threats.
Meanwhile, this week North Korea broke its 74-day pause when it fired a Hwasong-15 ICBM toward Japan where missiles fired earlier this year led Japanese officials to sound their own warning sirens.
With talk of nuclear war rattling nerves from Honolulu to Hokkaido, instability on the Korean Peninsula does benefit one group: weapons manufacturers like Lockheed-Martin which view Asia as a “growth area” and where, less than a month ago, President Trump bragged about how much military hardware the U.S. would sell to “bring security to the region.”