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At 8:08amtime, I was excavating a yellow passionfruit to go with a bowl of yogurt in my suite at the Hotel Wailea, a Relaix & Chateau property in Maui, when my phone buzzed. “Emergency Alert,” it said calmly, before changing to frantic all-caps: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
For the next 15 or so minutes, my wife and I wandered around our room, dumb-struck and shoving laptops and chargers and cash into a backpack. We’re not from Hawaii, where locals have more consciousness of a threat like this than sunburned East Coast interlopers. Emergency services regularly run tests in the islands. But this, as the alert noted, was not a test.
I called down to the front desk — busy — and eventually got through to the concierge, who calmly explained she had no information and that the staff was trying to find out more. No air-raid sirens — there would be air-raid sirens, right? — pierced the morning. Outside on my suite’s lanai, the view was blue and clear, the Kaho’olawe nature preserve a humpbacked shadow offshore. Could you see a missile incoming?
We put on the TV — nothing — so turned to Twitter. I searched “Hawaii alert,” which returned a stack of anxiety and confusion. The first tweet I saw suggesting the alert was a mistake came from Jason Parker (@NutzFordBucks), a member of the Army stationed at Schofield Barracks,. It was at 8:16am, 8 minutes after the alert.
Parker’s military status gave his tweet more legitimacy than it might have otherwise and cooled off our nerves, but still, no other users were corroborating. At 8:24am, Jake Tapper re-tweeted a post from Hawaiian congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, confirming the alert was a mistake and there were no missiles headed toward Hawaii. CNN broke into its usual news show around the same time.
Here’s the rub: Hawaiian emergency management did not confirm the false alarm until 8:46am, 38 minutes after every iPhone in Hawaii received the news, via another iPhone alert and emergency message on TV. That delay is almost as unacceptable as the alert being sent in the first place. There’s plenty bad to say about social media, but in this case, Twitter got the news out faster than traditional media and the government.
I’m finally sitting down to eat my yogurt with passionfruit. I’ll be following it up shortly with three drinks minimum at the Hotel Wailea’s.