With the simple push of a wrong button Saturday, Hawaii was thrown into sheer panic over the false warning of an impending missile strike — and the reverberations continued Sunday as lawmakers demanded answers for a massive blunder that stoked fear of nuclear war.
The alert, delivered to hundreds of thousands of cellphones Saturday morning, told Hawaiians to take cover and prepare for disaster.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” the message read.
It took 38 minutes for Hawaiian officials to send a message informing residents the warning had been sent in error — the result of a state employee pressing the wrong button and sending the alert by accident, said Hawaii Gov. David Ige.
Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi took responsibility for the mistake.
The mishap came at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, and for Hawaii residents, the notion of North Korea launching a ballistic missile toward the islands hardly seemed far-fetched.
Some lawmakers, along with Mr. Ige, also used the occasion to urge the Trump administration to ramp up diplomacy with North Korea in the hopes of eliminating even the slightest possibility of a missile attack on Hawaii or the West Coast of the U.S.
But those foreign policy matters took something of a back seat as lawmakers lashed out Sunday, saying the error and the subsequent slow response by state officials led to pure terror.
“This is not acceptable. People were terrified, children were sheltering in place in locker rooms, people were crying, businesses were shutting down,” Sen. Brian Schatz, Hawaii Democrat, said in an interview with CNN. “The fact that state government knew it was a false alarm and then took between 30 and 40 minutes to inform the rest of the public is just an abomination.”
Indeed, state officials reportedly knew within 10 minutes the alert had been sent accidentally. They posted a statement on Twitter retracting the warning, but it took almost another 30 minutes to send out a second cellphone message.
“I know firsthand how today’s false notification affected all of us here in Hawai’i, and I am sorry for the pain and confusion it caused,” Mr. Ige, the Democratic governor, said in a statement. “I, too, am extremely upset about this and am doing everything I can to immediately improve our emergency management systems, procedures and staffing.”
Federal officials said the incident was a simple mistake, and they cautioned against disregarding future alerts from the government.
“This was a very unfortunate mistake,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told “Fox News Sunday.”
But Ms. Nielsen also said Americans shouldn’t doubt any future warnings from their government.
“I think this is a very important topic and I want to encourage everyone, first and foremost, not to draw the wrong conclusion,” Ms. Nielsen said. “I would hate for anyone not to abide by alert warnings.”
For many in Hawaii, however, the situation was more than a mistake.
Professional golfer Colt Knost, who was staying at Waikiki Beach during a PGA Tour event, told The Associated Press that “everyone was panicking” in the lobby of his hotel.
“Everyone was running around like, ‘What do we do?’ ” Mr. Knost said.
State lawmakers said that residents now have every right to question whether their government is competent to deal with real emergencies.
“Clearly, government agencies are not prepared and lack the capacity to deal with emergency situations,” said state Rep. Scott Saiki, Hawaii House speaker.
There’s other evidence Hawaii may not be fully prepared.
Last month, the state reintroduced a warning siren system for missile threats. But during a test run, at least a dozen of the 386 sirens mistakenly played an ambulance siren. And in at least one area, sirens reportedly were barely audible.
As for Saturday’s debacle, numerous investigations are expected to begin immediately. State lawmakers have said they’ll hold hearings later this week. The Federal Communications Commission also said it will launch its own inquiry.
“The FCC is launching a full investigation into the false emergency alert that was sent to residents of Hawaii,” commission Chairman Ajit Pai tweeted.
As state and federal investigations begin, some lawmakers believe the incident should be the impetus for greater diplomacy between President Trump and his counterpart in North Korea.
“I’ve been calling for President Trump to sit across the table from [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un without preconditions, work out the differences, figure out a way to build this pathway towards denuclearization. Because there is so much at stake. The people of Hawaii recognized this yesterday, experienced it personally,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
In his statement apologizing for the false alarm, Mr. Ige on Saturday sounded a similar note.
“We must also do what we can to demand peace and a de-escalation with North Korea, so that warnings and sirens can become a thing of the past,” the governor said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.