The unsettling sound of air raid sirens tracing back to World War II and the Cold War returned to Hawaii on Friday in a test warning of a relatively new and unpredictable threat: a nuclear attack from North Korea.
At 11:45 a.m. about 180 sirens on Oahu and 385 statewide blared for the first time since the 1980s or very early 1990s an “attack warning” test intended to alert Hawaii’s populace that an intercontinental ballistic missile was on its way.
Gov. David Ige said Tuesday that the attack warning tests will be “the new normal” along with the regular monthly “attention alert” steady tone for hurricanes and tsunamis. A North Korean missile would arrive in Hawaii in about 20 minutes.
At the USS Arizona Memorial, which next week will commemorate the 76th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, visitors didn’t react visibly. Hawaii’s ongoing nuclear preparedness campaign and advance notice of the siren test already was international news, so there wasn’t much surprise.
Still, the same sort of wavering tone that announced bombers over London or Berlin in World War II — and was heard in Hawaii after Japan attacked — did have an impact.
“I got goose bumps,” Bruce Teasley, 63, visiting from Oregon with his wife, Jody, said just outside the memorial visitor center.
He added that it “took me a second, and then I remembered that we had seen the article in the paper about it and so then I remembered what it was about and what it actually was.
“Then I just started imagining the guys who were sitting here on duty that day (in 1941) when the attack happened and what must have been going through their minds.”
The couple said the siren test did not make them uneasy to be in Hawaii, “because I know we have a pretty good missile defense system in place,” Bruce Teasley said.
His wife Jody, 61, added, “The other thing is that you can’t stop living your life.”
Melissa Henderson, 43, from Baton Rouge, La., who was visiting Pearl Harbor with her husband, Ron, 48, said she also was aware of the planned test.
“I actually got a breaking-news alert from CNN” two days before leaving for Hawaii, she said. “I was very concerned and even second-guessing whether or not we should still come in light of what I read.”
“I guess (that’s) the state of the world that we’re in today,” she said, adding, “It was just very frightening, on one hand, the fact that we have come to the point to where we have to actually test sirens in light of the threat of nuclear war. But on the other hand, it is good that we are being proactive as a country in doing something to protect ourselves.”
Hawaii is one of the first states to comprehensively plan for what officials call the “extremely unlikely” possibility of a North Korean strike.
For planning purposes, the state is theorizing a 150-kiloton-yield bomb detonated over Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, an explosion that would cause nearly 18,000 fatalities and 50,000 to 120,000 trauma and burn casualties. But with uncertainty over the North Korean weapons program, the possibility of a miss and strike on a neighbor island also is factored in, leading to the warning siren testing statewide. The atomic bomb that went off over Hiroshima was 15 kilotons.
Friday’s test and Hawaii’s overall focus on nuclear preparedness, coupled with North Korea’s longest-range ICBM test to date on Tuesday, garnered national and international media attention. News outlets from Japan, South Korea, Germany, Australia, Scotland and New Zealand inquired about the new siren.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority on Wednesday sought to “reassure visitors to Hawaii” by noting how unlikely the chance is of a North Korean strike. Tourism is the state’s No. 1 economic driver.
“Leisure and business travelers planning a trip to Hawaii should not be alarmed by the testing of this new attack warning signal,” said George Szigeti, president and CEO of the authority. “Its implementation is consistent with the state’s long-standing policy to be prepared and informing the public well in advance of any potential threat to Hawaii’s well-being.”
Business as usual
When the sirens went off in Waikiki, it was mostly business as usual. A few tourists by Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon packed up their beach bags and left, but most weathered the noise as well as the rain, which seemed the greater nuisance. Some visitors covered their ears and looked around for the source of the noise, but most kept their attention focused on Hawaii’s famous sand and surf.
Katie Hanson, a visitor from Maryland, texted her husband, who was working on a military base, to see whether she should be concerned.
“I figured it was either a tsunami warning or something worse,” said Hanson, who learned from her husband that the siren was part of the new drill. While there has been discussion of North Korea’s expanding missile range in the news back home, Hanson said she hadn’t been forewarned about the sirens here.
On the other hand, Michael Woodrow, a visitor from Melbourne, Australia, said he wasn’t blindsided by the air raid warnings or especially concerned.
“My family was in Colorado earlier, and we heard on the news there that Hawaii was going to start testing sirens for the first time since the Cold War,” he said. “You are just trying to be prepared, and that’s good, although honestly there’s not a lot you can do. Still, I’m not losing any sleep over it. I don’t think (an attack) is likely.”
Outside the Arizona Memorial visitor center, Eric Jimenez, 60, who grew up in Hawaii and works for E Noa Tours, said the attack warning siren doesn’t bother him. “I think a lot of people are, like, living in a state of fear. But whatever’s going to happen is going to happen,” he said.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum in Honolulu, a think tank affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he believes there’s less than a 1 percent chance that North Korea would fire an ICBM at Hawaii.
Kim Jong Un “is not suicidal,” Cossa said. “An attack on Hawaii or Guam or anywhere else means the ultimate destruction of the regime.”
Ron Henderson, who was visiting the Arizona Memorial, said he knows that Russia and China have far more destructive ICBMs.
“(But) North Korea is unpredictable. Our president is unpredictable,” he said. “China and Russia, they have reason to hold back. It affects their economy more than North Korea, which has no economy besides China. So it’s very hard to deal with someone who is that unpredictable, and we’re dealing with someone on our side who’s that unpredictable.”