When texts go rogue
On Friday, on a whim, I surprised myself by walking into a local fish and dive excursion business and asking when their next whale watch trip was, and paid over my money to go out the next morning. I’d never been at all interested in whale watching—I think wild creatures should just be left to live their lives without being ogled at—hence my surprise at what I had just done. Then I spent a fairly sleepless night worrying about the weather prediction for 50-foot swells. Saturday morning dawned fair and clear, the water was calm, and just after 7am we chugged out of Kaunakakai’s little harbour, through the gap in the reef, and into the Kalohi Channel between Moloka‘i and Lana‘i.
So there we were—eight sightseers, the captain and the deckhand—out on the water, eyes peeled for signs of humpback whales, when suddenly peoples’ phones sounded an emergency alert about an incoming missile. Since December, our regular monthly tsunami warning siren test has been followed by a second siren warning of imminent missile attack. The public education around what to do if that event actually happened has been that you have 12-15 minutes to seek shelter, or stay inside if that’s where you already are. With nowhere to go out on the water, we just stayed calm and carried on. An action that was vindicated some minutes later when a message came over the marine radio channel that it was a false alarm.
On land, though—where people were relying on text alerts—it was a different story. The second alert, saying the first was a false alarm, wasn’t sent out for a full 38 minutes. News outlets in Hawai‘i have since published many stories of what people did in those intervening minutes: bus drivers on O‘ahu were instructed to stop their buses and herd the passengers into the nearest building; someone opened a manhole and put their children in a storm drain; families huddled in their bathtub. The local weekly paper is crowdsourcing reactions on their Facebook page and the stories are similar, including a family that piled into their truck and drove to the nearest concrete building—the police station—only to find, along with the 20 or so other people who turned up there, that it’s not manned on Saturdays. Shortly after some officers did arrive, Maui Police were informed that it was a false alarm.
Hawaii’s civil defence agency fessed up that the text alert was a result of human error when the shift change happened at 8am, and legislators were quick to assure everyone that a full investigation will be undertaken into how the error occurred and why it took so long to rescind the original text. In the meantime, of course, the state has learned some valuable lessons about public and institutional reaction to such an event. Comments on social media have run the gamut from “maybe a missile really was launched and it was shot down but they’re saying it’s a mistake in the interests of world peace” to “this was no error; the US military is in town trying to drum up support for missile placements on Kaua‘I”. I even received an email from a candidate for California Secretary of State latching onto the incident as a reason he should be elected.
Random people I spoke to after we got back to shore and I was walking home seemed to have had a very low-key response to the text alert, perhaps because the warning siren did not also go off. They just stayed home and waited to see what came next. Which is basically all you can do. Despite my own low-key response—which included the thought, “Oh, well, I guess I’ve got a ringside seat to see the mushroom cloud over O‘ahu”—I just wanted to hug everyone I met and say, "Isn't it good to be alive!"
And hug a whale, for seducing me out onto the water at that time. If I’d been on land, there’s a good chance I would have been a mess.