The Loraxes of Fairland share their harrowing firsthand experiences in Hawaii during the false ballistic missile emergency warning issued Saturday, Jan. 13
KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – What would you do if you thought the end of the world was about to happen?
A Fairland couple, Nick and Kelda Lorax, had to contemplate the possibility while visiting family during the false ballistic missile alert in Hawaii, Saturday, Jan. 13. The state of Hawaii was testing its nuclear warning system that would alert residents of an impending missile strike when an alert accidentally went out causing a mass reaction across the state.
In the aftermath, the false alarm has come under much criticism. Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency and Hawaii's Gov. David Ige have apologized for the error, which was blamed on an emergency worker hitting the wrong template during a routine drill.
The Loraxes shared their harrowing firsthand experiences in Hawaii.
“Although I've thought about it in jest a few times, I've never really considered what I would do,” Nick said later in the week. "I think there are stories we are told about such situations that are dramatized by authors to incite feelings in their audience, predominately fear. The reality is that, when faced with a life or death situation, a vast majority of people turn to caring for each other, not violence and pillaging.”
High alert in paradise
What started as a normal day in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, turned into anything but a typical day in the Hawaiian paradise for the Loraxes and their 4-year-old daughter Gela.
The family had traveled from Fairland to Hawaii for a visit and to help Kelda's mother and father with a large landscaping project.
“When the alert came in on our phones, I was at home with my parents. Their place is up a large hill and about a 20-minute drive away from downtown Kailua-Kona,” Kelda said. “My husband Nick and our daughter were downtown at the pier fishing and had been dropped off so they didn't have a car. Without looking at my phone it just seemed like an Amber Alert, so I didn't even glance at it right away.”
When Kelda did finally look at and read the alert, she scrambled to immediately put water, food, and shoes in the bathroom, figuring the interior bathroom had the most protection.
“I had taken the CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training and was trying to think of what it would be stupid to not grab while I could. I, of course, was thinking that something had escalated between Trump and Kim Jong-Un while I had not been paying attention to the news for 20 minutes,” she said. “My parents were talking to each other, but I was trying to get Nick on the phone.”
She says after several minutes of the phone not working, and her pacing between the backyard and the bathroom, she calmed down enough to remember what a friend had told her during Hurricane Katrina - texts will work but phone calls won't.
“So I texted Nick that I loved him and hoped he had gotten somewhere safe,” Kelda said.
Meanwhile, Nick and Gela were enjoying their fishing trip in one of the most popular locations in Kona.
“Gela and I got up before sunrise Saturday to head down to the Kailua Pier in downtown Kona. Just after sunrise we set up on the pier, cast out, and watched all the activity around us. Besides the many fishers on the pier there were also runners and swimmers passing by, canoes and kayaks launching, charter boats preparing for departure, equipment rental shops opening up, and two large groups of children,” Nick said. “After about an hour watching the fish play with our tackle I heard others’ phones going off. I assumed it was an Amber Alert and didn't bother to check mine, as it turned out I didn't receive the alert anyway. Slowly, I noticed people were packing up and leaving the pier, all the activity around us seemed to be shifting and heading inside the nearest building, a resort hotel on the beach.”
At that point a local woman told Nick, she wanted to make sure he knew there was an alert sent out on phones that an intercontinental ballistic missile was launched at Hawaii.
“Unsure of what to do, I started packing up our things, but not too quickly as I didn't want to frighten Gela. As we stood and started to follow the crowd towards the hotel I looked around the pier. While there was a feeling of high alert in the air, it wasn't chaotic, it was calm and precise,” he said.
Nick saw a few people taking small watercraft into the bay to inform the swimmers and to ferry them back to shore, paddle boards were being towed back in by small boats, and the children were quickly organized and led inside.
Nick tried calling Kelda but said the cell phone towers were all jammed.
“As we slowly walked towards the building with the children I realized a couple things. First, if there was a missile headed towards this island, I was in the exact location it would likely have been aimed at. Second, if a missile was to hit here I would rather not be under twenty-plus stories of what used to be a resort after it happened,” he said.
Nick spotted a nearby coffee shop and thought it would be the right place to get better information.
“There were only five people in the shop when we got there, a couple who was hadn't heard anything yet, and a younger guy talking to the two baristas who were locking up. One of the baristas explained to the couple that there was a missile launch warning on our phones and everyone needed to ‘seek shelter’.”
Nick said he had no idea where to seek shelter and all the shops that were open were closing. One of the men then told Nick he heard the alert was a false alarm.
“After a bit more wandering around, walking by the beach and enjoying the view to ourselves for a minute we ended up at a small shop that served shaved ice and Kona coffee. It seemed as good of a place as any to sit down and figure out what was going on. The cell phone towers were still jammed but we could text, and within a few minutes, Kelda had let us know that FEMA had announced it was a false alarm on the news. Twenty minutes later I got a message on my phone, it read, 'Imminent extreme alert: There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm. Jan 13 8:53 AM'”
Kelda was left at her parent’s home waiting for contact with Nick.
“It was all relatively emotionless actually. Like 'figure out what's happening and do something while you still can,' because I had kept standing around in the backyard gauging where I might see a missile if it was headed for Oahu. We're on the Big Island, so not really a political target,” she said.
Kelda heard neighbors down the slope talking and arguing with each other about what to do, saying things such as, 'Well, shouldn't we move away from the windows?' so she started talking to them, and then another neighbor across their fence chimed in.
“She said she thought it was false because she works for TSA and would have received more information. So all of the doubt around me made it seem like I shouldn't worry. I was also listening a lot, I don't know what I thought, like I could hear a missile coming and run inside, but I could hear a lot of the highway traffic below, and horns honking, and sirens,” Kelda said.
She says she knew with all the traffic it was impossible to get to Nick and Gela.
“It was weird that something so big and sudden, which could instantly kill all of us, had me mostly just being confused, angry at the president, but not necessarily sad. It was too overwhelming in the moment to have the luxury of feeling sadness or think of any final goodbyes,” Kelda said.
Kelda and her parents kept checking the news until she was able to navigate to the Hawaii Emergency Management website which indicated the alert was a false alarm.
“At that point, we all felt better and just ate breakfast like normal. It felt like a good ten minutes after that that all the phones got the notice about it being a false alarm. When the phone went off a second time it was another adrenaline rush, worried what this one might say, but of course, it just said that it was a false alarm,” Kelda said. “At some point, Nick and I were able to text back and forth, but that took awhile too.”
Both Kelda and Nick were left with different feelings about the event.
“Since then it's been interesting talking to people about their experiences that morning. Some people were really worried for the whole 38 minutes and were taking action to hide from a missile strike. Others, like my family and neighbors, really weren't,” Kelda said. “I wasn't, though probably I was still the one most 'on edge' of anyone in that circle. Probably because I've done enough disaster training to want to at least not be totally stupid about our readiness. We all had the same shock with the phone message and were ultimately, pretty clueless about what to do about it.”
Nick said, “I wasn't ready for the alarm. I had never thought about what I would actually do if a missile was fired at us in a moment's notice. Kelda and I argued about what I should have done to keep our daughter as safe as possible. After having time to reflect what happened, my heart is warmed to realize that a situation which seems like it should have inspired fear, actually only brought strangers closer together. I saw total strangers helping others because it needed done and they were the closest person there to do it.”
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.