BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT — Save Yourself, And Be Sure To Bring Your Camera

LAHAINA, HAWAI’I — Rare are the days when my alarm doesn’t go off well before the sun rises, so a morning to sit, enjoy a cup of coffee, and relax is one that I cherish. 

Saturday morning found me enjoying the quiet of my communal living room, reading The Sixth Extinction, a Pulitzer-Prize winning book about how human actions are accelerating the next mass extinction event.

In the midst of learning about ocean acidification (a rapid drop in the pH level of the world’s oceans, caused by a drastic uptick in carbon releases), I heard the distant, irksome whine of emergency iPhone alerts from the corners of my house. 

We all get these alerts periodically, but usually, they are Amber Alerts or test drills…messages that are somehow sent to everyone in a given radius without consideration as to whether the individual receiving the message can help.

As such, I didn’t consider checking my phone until my housemate Kate came out and showed me the message that by now, we’re all familiar with: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”.

A screenshot of the alert I received

A screenshot of the alert I received

An interesting notification to receive while reading The Sixth Extinction, and one that made the slow death of the world’s coral reefs seem somehow unimportant. Perhaps the next mass extinction event would be precipitated by actions more direct and pre-meditated than the gradual warming of the earth’s climate.

I could go on about the thoughts that I had after getting the alert— that I panicked, thought the world was ending, called my family crying, telling them that I loved them. But I didn’t really do anything like that, and I didn’t see anyone else doing it either. Reports of people locking themselves in their bathrooms, wailing, screaming, and crying seemed somewhat overblown to me, but that’s easy enough for me to say. I’m living in Maui, but aside from a close group of friends and some co-workers, I don’t know many people here, and no one is looking to me for support, guidance, or help in this time of need.

The only person I had to worry about was myself, and there was no sense freaking out about it. 

After a quick back and forth with Kate, we decided that if a ballistic missile were indeed headed for The Hawaiian Islands, it was unlikely to hit Maui. Terrorist attacks or acts of aggression would target important places of commerce, government, and population, meaning Honolulu was at risk. 

Unless you really have a thing against stand-up paddle boarders and sunburnt tourists in Aloha shirts, you’re not launching a ballistic missile at Maui. But if a missile is headed straight for Oahu — about 80 miles away — then the biggest threat to low-lying Lahaina is a tsunami-like wave.

In that case, the best thing to do would be to seek higher ground. Kate suggested we head up to the bypass, a highway some thousand feet up in the mountains designed to circumvent the notoriously heinous westside traffic. Having taken a number of photographs from the bypass, I knew exactly where we could go to give us a good vantage point of the channel below us, and Oahu off in the distance.

Purposefully but calmly, we each packed a bag. I crammed all of my valuable electronics into my backpack, because if this was a hoax, a drill, or even a catastrophe that we were going to survive, I didn’t want anyone stealing my stuff. Looters be damned!

Weirdly enough, I also took the time to brush my teeth. I hate the feeling of a dirty mouth, and the last thing I wanted was to be stuck on the bypass with a thousand other people, watching the world burn with an awful case of coffee breath and cotton mouth.

The short drive up to the bypass was spent, oddly enough, checking Twitter in an effort to get more information. I vaguely wondered what Trump’s reaction to this was going to be….if we only had five minutes before the skin was melted off our bodies, that would be “SAD” indeed.

It’s at this point that I texted my family what was going on and that I was taking steps to ensure I was safe. Perhaps it was selfish to not call them and tell them I love them, but I thought a reaction such as that would be overblown and add to the hysteria. Honestly, the thought didn’t cross my mind. I suppose it all goes back to only having to worry about my own safety, but the only thought in my mind was to put myself in the absolute best position to survive.

A small part of me thought that this was real — that Trump’s blustery rhetoric had finally pissed off North Korea enough that my life was going to become the first of many casualties in World War Three — but even if that were the case, there’s no sense overreacting. You can only do what’s reasonable to do, and that meant driving to higher ground to avoid a massive surge of water, to a place where I could get a picture of the mushroom cloud over Oahu if it did hit. There is no reasonable “shelter to seek” in Lahaina if the shit actually were to hit the fan.

The Lahaina Bypass--safe enough from a tsunami. Oahu is about 80 miles from where I stood, in the middle of the horizon.

The Lahaina Bypass--safe enough from a tsunami. Oahu is about 80 miles from where I stood, in the middle of the horizon.

Fortunately, we had only camped out for a few short minutes before the overwhelming internet consensus was that the ALERT was sent in error, and despite the lack of a follow-up emergency ALERT assuring us that the previous notification was sent in error, we started back towards home. 

There was also the undeniable fact that it had been twenty minutes since we received the ALERT, and there was no sign of an explosion anywhere. Google told us we would have 6–12 minutes from the time the ALERT was sent until impact.

I suppose this is the part where I should talk about the lessons I learned, and how every day is precious. That you shouldn’t waste a single moment on earth, and you should live life to its fullest. Yet those weren’t the thoughts going through my mind, so I’m not going to pretend that’s what happened.

My main thought was that on the off chance that I actually had five minutes to live, that I’ve had a pretty good life, and I’ve made the most of my time here. I did what I reasonably could to put myself in a position to survive, at which point I would have called my loved ones and given them my last words. 

And if my time was up, then sitting on an overlook up the West Maui Mountains, watching it all happen wouldn’t be the worst place to be. At least I could have gotten a good photo of it before I went bye-bye.