Growing up in Hawaii, the only disaster I was taught to prepare for was a catastrophic tsunami. If you asked me what to do, say, during a nuclear missile attack, I’d be utterly useless.
It wasn’t necessarily my fault, though. Decades had elapsed since residents worried about “the bomb.” Hawaii’s most recent community shelter plan, a set of instructions for surviving nuclear fallout, dates to 1985, when Cold War paranoia was still palpable. But as unproven fears of a North Korean nuclear strike grow louder, so too has the need for public reassurance.
For this reason, Hawaii is massively overhauling its archaic nuclear contingency plans—an effort one state official described to me as “formidable and critical to the survival of our 1.4 million residents and visitors in the unlikely event of a nuclear detonation.”
I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Hawaii Department of Defense last month for its nuclear evacuation plans and preparedness guidelines. The agency told me that no current materials exist, and that extremely outdated plans had been rescinded. Hawaii stopped planning for an attack in the 1980s, due to the low risk of an attack, although it did simulate a half-kiloton nuclear explosion near Oahu’s Honolulu Harbor in 2006.
Instead, I was provided with a Plan of Action and Milestones (PoAM) for a new ballistic missile defense initiative, two lists of talking points about the initiative, a Department of Defense disaster briefing, and a description of how the agency is actively responding to the North Korea threat.
In response to the current threat from North Korea (DPRK), we are engaged in the following activities:
Researching current knowledge and techniques for population protection. This activity includes surveying all 50 states and US territories (underway), obtaining and reviewing the latest scientific evidence (weapons effects, sheltering strategies, etc.) and modeling weapon impact on the island of Oahu.
Developing the content for a public information campaign for near and long-term public education focused on an all-hazards approach. This information is not yet in draft form and will be available the first week of June.
Reviewing existing emergency notification and warning protocols between the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) and our State Warning Point.
Conducting briefings for congressional and state legislative leaders.
Maintaining a set of ‘talking points’ for media inquiries.
Reconfiguring siren systems statewide to allow for two distinct warning sounds; Attention-Alert (currently in use) and Attack-Warning (used up until the 1980’s for attack scenarios – being restored)
Exploring the use of the Wireless Emergency Alert (Cell phones) system to augment the existing Emergency Alert System (broadcast radio and television) and siren system (outdoor warning).
Conducting in-service training for key staff and leadership regarding weapons effects, response protocols and related.
Reviewing existing procedures for mass casualty and fatality management with the US Department of Health & Human Services
Conducting a Functional Exercise to assure full integration of response activities and protocols.
Going forward, we will be engaging with Hawaii’s four county governments, the federal government and all state agencies to bring about meaningful plans and public guidance. The work ahead is formidable and critical to the survival of our 1.4 million residents and visitors in the unlikely event of a nuclear detonation. Our work is being conducted in a deliberate, transparent and scientifically-supported basis.
Part of the agency’s response is to a group of Hawaii lawmakers who urged the state to update its nuclear contingency plans. State representatives, led by Rep. Matt LoPresti, a Democrat, introduced a resolution this month to modernize Hawaii’s nuclear response procedures, citing geopolitical tensions and North Korea’s developing intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology.
“This is uncomfortable to think about, but we have a whole generation of people growing up that haven’t ever really thought about these things, and they need to be educated about the reality and survivability and what we can do,” Rep. LoPresti told Governing.
A North Korean ICBM could reach Hawaii in 20 minutes, the state estimates. And since fallout shelters are not blast shelters, the likelihood of injury is grim—an outcome the agency acknowledges in its prepared remarks. (During the Cold War, students in Hawaii often practiced “duck and cover” drills, which were part of a Federal Civil Defense Administration public awareness campaign.)
It’s clear, however, that Hawaii is trying to avoid an outbreak of mass hysteria. The Department of Defense notes that no imminent threat exists, and that, contrary to some media reports, “the sky is not falling.”
“If North Korea fires a missile with the intent of hitting a US city, they do that knowing that the game is over in the most profound sense,” Denny Roy, a senior fellow and Asia Pacific security expert at the East-West Center, told me. They don’t “want to use nukes against the US because it means North Korea will be extinguished as a separate country.”
Still, the fear of an attack feels different this time, some locals say. President Trump’s disregard for foreign policy is a national concern. In April, he called North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “a pretty smart cookie,” and has recklessly tweeted about the possibility of war with the country.
Rep. LoPresti hopes that Trump and Congress will fund Hawaii’s nuclear contingency preparations, much like the federal government did during the Cold War.
“Despite whom you talk to,” the Department of Defense notes, “or whom you believe, as far as the nuclear delivery capabilities of North Korea, hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst is the burden of our government.”