The false alarm about an incoming ballistic missile that sent Hawaii into a panic this weekend threatened to turn into a major embarrassment for the state and its politically endangered governor, David Ige, as Hawaii officials moved to head off damage to Hawaii’s biggest industry, tourism.
The Federal Communications Commission said today that its initial investigation of the mistaken alert had concluded that Hawaii did not have “reasonable safeguards or process controls in place” in its emergency notification process. The alert was sent to cellphones across Hawaii on Saturday morning when a state employee pushed the wrong button in the midst of a shift-change safety drill. It took 38 minutes for the agency to withdraw the alert.
The prospect of a battery of investigations by state and federal lawmakers, with public testimony about the timeline of events, suggested that the alert would probably be a dominant subject in Hawaii life for months to come.
And it quickly emerged as an issue for Ige, 60, a soft-spoken engineer and a Democrat who is up for re-election this year, and whose leadership style had been criticized as tepid. He held a news conference five hours after the mistake to apologize, and frequently yielded the microphone to other officials.
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“This is one of the worst thing that could happen to an incumbent governor who has already been criticized for his lack of leadership,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii. “There is no more obvious test of leadership than responding to what happened yesterday.”
“This story isn’t going to go away,” Moore said. “It’s going to haunt his re-election campaign all the way to the August primary. Everyone is going to want to talk about their story — that morning when they were terrified, and why it took the governor so long to respond.”
Ige issued a statement today apologizing again for the bungled alert. “I can personally assure each and every resident and visitor that steps have already been taken by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency to ensure that a situation of this type never happens again,” he said.
Across Hawaii today, people spoke about gathering their families for what they thought would be their last moments, until the “false alarm” announcement went out.
“Why did it take so long to correct the mistake?” said Jamie Higa, 34, a real estate agent. “Whoever is responsible clearly failed to do his job. The governor isn’t directly responsible for what happened, but he is our top elected official.”
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who is challenging Ige in the Democratic primary in August, repeatedly questioned in an interview why it took so long for the alert to be rescinded.
“Thirty-eight minutes — and the fear and the anxiety and everything that it caused for the people and for our visitors,” she said. “This is going to have a major consequence for our visitor industry as well. Either people think we are incompetent, or we are not safe.”
“The governor and his administration did not handle this correctly,” she continued. “You cannot have people driving 100 miles an hour on the freeway and having visitors shelter in place. Immediately, what he should have done is checked and verified whether it is real or not real, and if it was not real, tell people immediately, not 38 minutes later.”
Ige’s campaign issued a statement defending his handling of the event and saying the governor had focused over the past year on ensuring that Hawaii was prepared for an attack, particularly as tensions rose between North Korea and the United States. A missile launched from North Korea would land in Honolulu in about 30 minutes, giving people very little time to prepare.
“This is an inappropriate time to involve politics with the matter at hand,” said Glenna Wong, communications director for the campaign. “Gov. David Ige has the utmost compassion for our citizens who endured yesterday’s fear and heartache, and has assured each and every resident, community and business stakeholders, and visitors that a false alert will never happen again.”
“It is unfortunate that she is using yesterday’s event to draw attention to herself while offering no solution,” she said of Hanabusa.
The governor’s aides said the state moved quickly to inform people that it was a false alarm in posts on Twitter and on Facebook. They blamed the delay in sending out a second alert on a flaw in the state emergency system: It had no process for recalling an erroneous message. That is being changed, they said, and two people must now approve an alert before it is sent out.
As the crisis rose and receded in less than an hour Saturday, other officials in the state were quicker — and more visible — than the governor in trying to reassure a panicked public, including Hanabusa and Hawaii’s other representative, Tulsi Gabbard, who is also a Democrat.
“His challenger was on air with a local television station before he was,” said Rebecca S. Ward, who conducts polls in the state for The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “The governor has come under fire in the past for lack of leadership. And I’m afraid that yesterday reinforced that. I think there’s no question but that this is going to be a major hurdle for him in this re-election.”
Tim Hart, 58, a construction worker spending today on a beach in Kona, said he faulted Ige for keeping a low profile.
“The governor really didn’t do much until hours and hours after the fact,” he said. “Tulsi Gabbard got the bull by the horns and in less than 10 minutes, she was tweeting.”
Neil Abercrombie, the previous governor, whom Ige defeated in a Democratic primary in 2014, called the episode “a monumental example of failure of leadership — incredible.”
“It’s beyond incompetent,” he said. “It is stunning. It should have been rescinded instantly.”
As officials tried to reconstruct exactly what happened on Saturday, a spokesman for the Pacific Command in Hawaii said the military had moved quickly to push back against the Hawaii state alert as soon as it was known to be incorrect.
“Upon confirming yesterday’s message was a false alarm, Uspacom Public Affairs worked quickly to inform the public through traditional and social media channels,” Cmdr. David Benham, a military spokesman, said in an email Sunday, using an acronym for the Pacific Command. “We will use this as an opportunity to improve our internal processes as well as coordination with State authorities.”
The Pacific Command first told Hawaii media that there was no approaching ballistic missile at 8:23 a.m. — about 13 minutes after Hawaii sent out the alert.
Hawaii’s economy depends heavily on tourism. Hanabusa’s concern that the false alarm might discourage people from visiting the islands was shared by state tourism officials.
George D. Szigeti, president of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, called the mistake — which sent terrified tourists searching for shelter — “regrettable and completely avoidable.”
“There is no cause for travelers with trips already booked to Hawaii or considering a vacation in the islands to change their plans,” he said. “Hawaii continues to be the safest, cleanest and most welcoming travel destination in the world, and the alarm created today by the false alert does not change that at all.”