Hawaii False Alarm Scare: What Happened NPR's Michel Martin talks with Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard about Saturday's mistaken ballistic missile alert and what can be done prevent false alarms in the future.

Hawaii False Alarm Scare: What Happened

Hawaii False Alarm Scare: What Happened

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NPR's Michel Martin talks with Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard about Saturday's mistaken ballistic missile alert and what can be done prevent false alarms in the future.


For 38 terrifying minutes yesterday, thousands of people living in and vacationing in Hawaii had the kind of scare most of us only experience in the movies. An emergency alert warned of an incoming ballistic missile. The alert insisted it was not a drill, but the alert was sent by accident.

One of the first people to let the world know it was actually a mistake was Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard when she tweeted in all-caps - Hawaii, this is a false alarm. There is no incoming missile to Hawaii. I have confirmed with officials there is no incoming missile. Congresswoman Gabbard is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

TULSI GABBARD: Aloha. Thanks. It's great to talk to you.

MARTIN: So before we get into lessons learned, I wanted to start by asking you what was going through your mind when you saw or heard that alert, however you saw - first saw it.

GABBARD: Yeah. You know, as soon as I saw it come across my phone, I, like so many - like people all across the state of Hawaii, you have that moment where the unimaginable is happening. And you understand that you could very well have minutes before your loved ones and our home is destroyed - literally destroyed.

Immediately, I knew that I needed to verify whether or not this was actually happening, began making phone calls to Hawaii state officials and quickly was able to get an answer that this was, in fact, a false alarm, that this alert was sent out mistakenly or inadvertently, and that we need to let people know as quickly as possible that that was the case. And that's exactly what I did.

MARTIN: Well, to that end though, in fact, one of the things we all noticed was that your tweet calling the alert a mistake came out even before the Hawaii state emergency management announcement came out. Do you mind - how were you able to confirm it so quickly?

GABBARD: I spoke with some of the officials (inaudible) management department - the head of the National Guard. And he confirmed, very quickly, that they had already confirmed there was no incoming ballistic missile threat. Why it took so long for that official message to then go out to people's phones, again, saying that it was a false alarm, is something that's absolutely unacceptable, must be investigated so that this kind of thing never happens again, so that this mistaken alert never happens, but that this kind of 38-minute-long terror that people experienced all across Hawaii is corrected.

MARTIN: And, well, to that end, the governor has explained that this was human error - pushing the wrong button. And I would imagine that one of the concerns now is that this risks making Hawaiians less likely to take the next alert seriously. Are there any steps now that you can tell us about that will prevent this from happening again?

GABBARD: I think that that is a natural, very real concern - is that, you know, when you're dealing with a ballistic missile coming towards Hawaii, you know, there is less than 15 minutes that people have before potential impact. So when you're dealing with those minutes and seconds, what we don't want is for people to be spending that precious time wondering, is this for real, or is this just another mistake?

So this is why taking serious corrective action at the state level, figuring out all of the layers of what went wrong and what must be changed and done to fix it, holding those responsible accountable but also really looking - also nationally and federally, why is it that one person was able to push this so-called wrong button that sent panic throughout the state of Hawaii but also really sent a message to the world - the wrong message to the world? And these kinds of things can result in unintentional military activations. And even, as we saw, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, these kinds of things can lead to unintentional potential nuclear war.

MARTIN: Well, we - to that end, we cannot ignore the context. Part of the context of what would cause people to take this so seriously, to put it mildly, is that tensions have been building with North Korea, which is a nuclear power. And you've called on President Trump to open direct negotiations with that country. What would you like to see out of those negotiations?

GABBARD: Ultimately, we need to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. We need to remove this nuclear threat from the people of Hawaii, the people of this country so that they no longer have to sit there and wonder if this alert coming through to their phone is real and where they have minutes to decide what they're going to do, which of their family members they're going to spend the last minute of their lives with.

This is the reality that people of Hawaii went through yesterday. And I've been hearing from people all across the state just sharing, you know, their tearful stories about what they did during those minutes, what ran through their mind - you know, parents who have kids going to school in Hawaii and being terrified about whether or not they would be safe.

MARTIN: That was Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Congresswoman, thanks so much for speaking with us. We really appreciate it.

GABBARD: Thank you. Aloha.

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