Monday, Feb 19, 2018
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EDITORIAL

Panic in the new nuclear age

You do not need to live in Hawaii to be alarmed by the mistaken alert that panicked millions there just a few days ago.

Last Saturday morning, the state’s emergency management system sent out an alert warning residents of an impending ballistic missile attack. One-third of the brief message was even devoted to a sentence answering the obvious question of whether the message was just a scary test: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

For 38 minutes, people across Hawaii were left wondering whether a missile attack — possibly a nuclear missile — was really headed their way. Worse than that, no one seemed to know what they were supposed to do.

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By the time authorities were able to send out a follow-up message to tell the public that the initial alert was a false alarm, panic had rattled not only Hawaii, but the rest of the United States and likely the world.

Since North Korea demonstrated in recent months that it had weapons capable of striking not only Hawaii, but most of the U.S. mainland, Americans have had to come to terms with the idea that they might get an emergency alert just like the message that went out in Hawaii last week. The problem is that no authorities have ever told anyone how we should react in that scenario.

The reaction in Hawaii Saturday was a horrifying example of how unprepared the public is for such a threat. People ran for whatever cover they could find, sent frantic texts to friends and loved ones, and prayed.

Because what else could they do? What would any of us know to do?

This scary reality means that the panic did not abate even after it was clear the initial alert was just a mistake.

The incident certainly could have been much worse. Thankfully, no serious injuries have been reported and no missiles landed on Hawaii. But two things must happen going forward:

First, Hawaiian emergency management officials and the Federal Communications Commission must follow up on their promises for a thorough review of the false alarm. Update whatever procedures, personnel, and technology required to make sure this never happens again. Anywhere.

Second, every American city and state needs a disaster response for a missile attack. This is the reality of the world we now live in. Everyone must know what to do if such an alert ever needs to be sent again.

This is not asking too much.

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