This could be the day that I die
Imagine, just for a second, that a nuclear bomb is about to be dropped on your city. Where would you run ? What would you do if you knew you had only twenty minutes to live?
Few weeks ago Hawaiians were faced with these terrifying questions after an emergency alert notification warned of an imminent ballistic missile attack. The message turned to be an error. A grave error that sent an entire state into terror and gave me a major headache.
I came to Maui just before the New Year’s Eve. The goal of the trip was to relax, spend some time with my family and enjoy a bit of sunshine ( that we dearly miss in Belgium). Dying in paradise — was certainly not part of my plans.
After reading the emergency message, I started packing: a box of cereals, twizzlers, two chocolate bars and a bottle of water — all stashed in a black garbage bag. My family has no survival kit for the emergencies, and — as you can imagine — I wasn’t really concerned with a healthy diet.
All my thoughts went to my 5 year old playing in the other room. How can I possibly explain this situation to my kid? “Something important is happening. Take your shoes and go look for a jacket. I’ll just make a quick phone call and we’re leaving. I’ll explain later” — I said anxiously yet as calmly as I could.
Apocalyptic pictures of Hiroshima and Chernobyl flashed through my mind like a film run at high speed. It felt so unreal — difficult to believe it is happening. Nothing in my neighborhood ( Wailuku Heights) was suggesting an imminent nuclear catastrophe. In all of their glory, majestic Iao Valley Mountains stood in front of me hugging the first rays of sunlight. The birds were singing. The sky was blue. Just another day in paradise.
“This can’t be happening”, I thought to myself. I needed ulterior confirmation that we are just minutes before the blast. Scared, I tried tweeting about it, talking to a neighbor. A lady in her sixties was just coming back from a morning jog when I jumped in front of her rumbling about shelter-seeking and North Korea. “ Shit, this will be the day we’ll all die.” —she said to my puzzled face.
Across Hawaiian Islands people were calling their loved ones to say their goodbyes. Many were speeding down the highway in a hurry to reunite with their families. Some sought shelter in the hills, shopping malls, under the table (“duck and cover”), their hotels, cars and basements ( a rarity in Hawai’i). Others, like my neighbor, were just shrugging their shoulders. “Shit, at times, happens, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Disasters are by definition sudden and unfortunate. As a researcher into collective memory, I’ve spent several years studying personal and collective reactions to man-made disasters and mass violence such are the terrorist attacks. People react in many different ways to a life-threatening event. Every traumatic experience is unique and individual.
Yet, there are at least two common ideas that run like a red thread through many personal stories of survivors. First, a functioning emergency management is crucial when a disaster strikes. Second, all survivors agree with the advice given by the emergency experts : keeping your calm is the best policy as it increases your chances of survival.
Remaining calm, is clearly easier said than done.
The “fake” alert in Hawai’i, in a sense, was a simulation of a nuclear attack. If this were a real attack, I’d be probably dead by now. My neighbor too. We failed to locate shelters. Also, I spent too much time trying to confirm the news. But what have we learned from that day?
Hawai’i are under omnipresent threat of war. Since that terrible morning, all of the islanders came to this painful realization.The islands in the Pacific, (e.g. Hawai’i, Guam, the Marshall Islands) face a huge problem of militarism. The island of O’ahu (where the capital Honolulu is situated) is one of the prime examples of how US security and military needs have shaped the Aloha state, its native lands and ecosystems. Entire coastlines of this beautiful island have been transformed into “no-go zones”: military bases or housing for military personnel and family members. Today, it is crystal clear that the strategic position of Hawai’i makes of its islands not only an excellent defense point, but also a “convenient” target.
Triggered alarm sent Hawai’i into chaos. Disaster management and emergency response to what was communicated as an “imminent attack” have proven certainly a challenge for the Aloha State. Yet, this terrifying experience offers a handful of important data which must serve as a starting point for crafting better policies on emergency management. Especially when it comes to raising awareness of safety measures and protocols. Some actions are already taken. In the days following the crisis, small business owners in the County of Maui (e.g. Kihei, Wailuku, Lahaina) placed info sheets to display safety procedures for their employees and customers. These are small steps, but certainly a change in good direction.
With the Doomsday scare behind us, normal rhythms are now resumed and the famous Aloha spirit restored. Effective scrutiny of policies and responsibility-taking for what occurred in Hawai’i are underway. In the meantime, countless tourists continue flocking to Hawaii to indulge in its magic.
Before anything else, Hawai’i is America’s happy place. In a rainbow bubble, we can all be happy and get the warm fuzzies. With its screaming colors, sandy beaches, plumeria flowers and aloha shirts Hawai’i offers a dreamy escape from our everyday realities. However, the “fake” alert woke up real fears. Bubbles are beautiful, but bubbles burst.
Ana Milosevic is a PhD Researcher at the University of Leuven, Belgium. When she’s not busy witnessing and surviving fake nuclear attacks and other man-made disasters - she writes about them.