HONOLULU — For the first time in more than three decades, an ominous warning siren blared across Hawaii earlier this month — an alarm that one day could mean a nuclear missile is about to hit.
The siren, a Cold War relic brought back in the wake of new threats from North Korea, is the centerpiece of the most wide-ranging campaign in the U.S. to prepare for a nuclear strike. Over the last few months, state officials have aired TV ads warning Hawaiians to “get inside, stay inside” if an attack is imminent. They’ve also held meetings across the islands to educate residents on the danger.
Especially after North Korea’s latest missile test, some experts believe California and the Bay Area — one of the closest U.S. metro areas to Pyongyang after Honolulu — should follow Hawaii’s example. But so far the Golden State’s reaction has been starkly different.
“Hawaii feels like it’s on the front lines because it’s so close to North Korea, but these weapons have a pretty long reach,” said Alex Wellerstein, a professor who studies nuclear weapons at New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology. In practical terms, he said, “Hawaii isn’t a whole lot closer than San Francisco.”
Indeed, Hawaii is about 4,600 miles from North Korea, compared to 5,450 miles for the City by the Bay.
Hawaii’s alarm was tested Dec. 1 following the regular tsunami siren and will be tested on the first business day of every month. It’s a wailing caterwaul, impossible to ignore, and sounds different from the single-tone tsunami warning. For many locals and tourists, the foreboding sound evoked an earlier era when American schoolchildren were taught to hide under their desks in case the Soviet Union launched a nuclear strike.
Hawaii just tested its nuclear attack warning siren for the first time since the end of the Cold War: pic.twitter.com/hSeqXpAVQ4
— Casey Tolan (@caseytolan) December 1, 2017
“I hope we don’t get to that point again.,” said Lance Whitney, 64, who was suiting up to go kitesurfing on a picturesque Maui beach when the siren sounded.
But amid the acrimonious back-and-forth between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, this is the new normal for Hawaii.
If a North Korean missile were actually on its way toward the Aloha State, the alarm would give residents about a 13-minute heads up, officials say. Hawaiians would also get emergency text message alerts on their smartphones — and a warning would interrupt TV and radio broadcasts.
Emergency officials are telling residents to prepare for nuclear holocaust by stockpiling up to two weeks of food and medicine. If an attack is imminent, they should get inside, seal all windows, shelter in the most stable part of their home or office — and wait for further information.
While analysts say North Korean missiles can probably reach most of the U.S., it’s unclear whether the country can mount a nuclear warhead on a missile or aim well enough to hit a city.
Still, “we just couldn’t ignore these constant threats and missile tests from North Korea,” said Vern Miyagi, Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency administrator. He stressed that a nuclear strike from the rogue state was unlikely, but he said state leaders felt a responsibility to address it because a nuclear missile aimed at Honolulu could cause 18,000 fatalities and 50,000 to 120,000 casualties.
While some officials worried that preparing for a nuclear strike could cause a panic, “what we’ve learned from the last few months is that the public can handle it,” Miyagi said. “People are welcoming this information, and we need to share everything we know.”
So far, there’s no nuclear preparedness campaign in the Bay Area or California that even approaches Hawaii’s push.
“We are not doing anything to that level now,” said Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the California Office of Emergency Services.
Officials are holding weekly meetings with the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security and receiving classified briefings about the nuclear threat to California, he said. But “the probability that Californians will be faced with a fire or an earthquake is so much higher than a nuclear detonation,” he said.
San Francisco’s network of alarm sirens has been tested weekly for decades. While there’s no specific alarm for an incoming missile, a general alarm accompanied by cellphone alerts specifying a nuclear attack would be used in that case, said Francis Zamora, a spokesman for the city’s emergency department.
Oakland also has a siren system that it tests monthly. The Emergency Management Services Division put a few paragraphs about a nuclear attack on its website “when all this hyperbole started happening between us and North Korea,” said Mitchell Green, the agency’s acting director, but there are no plans for a broader public education effort.
In San Jose, “a lot of the old air raid siren systems were dismantled many, many years ago,” said Ray Riordan, the city’s director of emergency services. When the Cold War ended more than a quarter-century ago, funding for nuclear warning systems dried up — one of Riordan’s first jobs was helping take down the siren network. It would cost millions of dollars to rebuild it now, he said.
Public awareness campaigns like Hawaii’s are important now because “there are several generations of Americans who have never had to take nuclear weapons seriously,” said Wellerstein, the professor. Explaining the best practices for surviving an attack can make a difference.
But some observers question whether preparedness campaigns give people a false sense of security. Telling people to get inside their homes “really sells short how catastrophic this would be,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey. “What you want is not to have the nuclear war in the first place.”
Experts predict that if North Korea did target Hawaii, it would try to hit Pearl Harbor, the headquarters of the Pacific Fleet. A map of potential nuclear targets in a 2013 North Korean propaganda photo included Honolulu.
The idea of Pearl Harbor as a target brings back memories for Sterling Cale, who was a 20-year-old Navy medical specialist stationed there when Japanese forces attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Now 96, he volunteers at the Pearl Harbor historic site every week, wearing a colorful Hawaiian shirt and pointed Navy cap as he talks to visitors about his experience.
“We’re much more prepared now than we were in World War II,” Cale said. “I’m not worried — our people are ready for anything that might happen.”
Some Hawaiians, however, fear that the nuclear threat will scare vacationers away from the state’s beaches.
Makani Christensen, a tour guide in Honolulu, thought regular sirens could hurt his business. State officials should “think about the big picture and not jump into this hysteria unless (a missile) is absolutely coming,” he said.
Several visitors did say they had second thoughts about visiting after hearing the Dec. 1 siren. Derrick and Nancy Chappell, 84 and 83, who are from Lincolnshire, England, had just disembarked from a relaxing five-day cruise to Honolulu when the wailing started.
“We heard that noise when the Germans were coming,” Nancy said. “It brought everything back again.”
The siren also interrupted the Waikiki honeymoon of New York newlyweds Angad and Shilpa Singh, 29 and 28. When it blared through their hotel room windows, Shilpa Singh said, “it was like, should we really be here?”
But Dean Nakasone, a vice-president with the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, an industry group, said those fears were overblown. For tourists to avoid Hawaii because of fear of a nuclear strike would be even less rational than avoiding California out of fear of wildfires, he said: “We’re doing the preparation like we would for any other kind of emergency.”