The morning of Saturday, January 13 was one not to be forgotten for anyone on any of the Hawaiian islands. Over the past few months on Oahu, the state has tested its emergency siren in order to be prepared for a possible attack, but it always seemed hypothetical. We carried on with our daily lives and ignored the siren like we were instructed to (if we could even hear it from wherever we were at the time). During these drills, I always happened to be at work with a classroom full of inquisitive 2nd graders. How do you explain to 20 7-year-olds that the siren alerts us in case of a missile attack? The answer: very carefully. We were always told that if a missile was launched in our direction from North Korea, we would have roughly 15 minutes from the time of the alert to the time of impact. What do you even do in that amount of time?
On January 13, however, I was not at work. I was at home on a lazy Saturday morning. I was sleeping in, as was most of my family. It was just past 8am, and as I lay in bed, trying to convince myself that I needed to get up, I heard my phone buzzing uncontrollably. As I reached for it, I noticed, surprisingly, that my husband, Johnathan, was not in bed like I thought he was. I assumed he must be out getting our weekly box of donuts at the local bakery. When I looked at my phone, which was still buzzing frantically, I saw the words: EMERGENCY ALERT: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
My heart sank. I did a double take and literally shook my head in an attempt to change the words that were in front of me. Unfortunately, I had read them correctly. Before I could even budge, Johnathan came barging into the room yelling my name. Thankfully, he had not yet left for the bakery (although he had keys in hand to do so). He has an uncanny ability to think clearly in a time of crisis. I do not. "We have to go!" he said. "Get the kids!" I jumped out of bed, suddenly very awake but thoroughly confused. This can't be real, I kept thinking. Suddenly, someone banged on our front door. I heard loud panicked voices. It was our neighbor, Danielle, and her two daughters. One of the daughters was crying and saying, "What is happening? Where is Daddy?" Her daddy was out on the north shore of the island, surfing, unreachable, and probably clueless to the danger that was lurking.
As I rounded up my three children, Danielle closed the windows in our living room, and my husband put our dogs in the back yard with bowls of food. (The children have still not forgiven him for leaving the dogs behind.) Johnathan, Danielle, 4 kids, and I piled into our van, ready to go somewhere, anywhere other than our historical, wooden homes that would never survive a missile attack. It was then that I realized one of my 3 children was missing. The 12 year old... Where was she?! She had run to the neighbor's house two doors down where she was dog sitting for the weekend. Of course, in this time of panic, she was following her heart and making sure those two dogs were ok. Johnathan ran over there to get her out. Finally, we left, not sure where we were going. As we drove away from our house, I texted family back in North Carolina, telling them just the facts: "We received an alert that a missile is headed to Hawaii, and we are seeking shelter." I quickly received emotional replies of "I love you" and "Keep us updated." I choked back the flood of emotions that entered my mind and refused to respond with anything resembling a goodbye. I didn't let my mind go there.
We saw multiple neighbors running towards a big building of soldiers' barracks nearby. We quickly parked, jumped out of the van, and joined them as a soldier waved us into the concrete room on the first floor. The first thing the kids noticed was that the multiple families in the room all had their dogs with them. We did not. All 3 of our children begged us to go back and get our dogs. Of course, we could not. There was no time. Our 15 minutes until impact was quickly expiring. Any second now we would hear and feel the blast. Upon entering the room, I became teary eyed as the seriousness of the situation hit me, and I realized this might be real afterall. The mood was somber, but all I could say was, "This can't be real. This can't be real."
I saw a soldier filling a huge jug full of water. Prepared families had backpacks full of emergency supplies. We did not. My kids kept reminding me that we left our dogs behind. My conscience was filling with guilt and worry. As the minutes crept by, people were quiet. The women and children were in their pajamas. People held their dogs tight so that the dogs did not get out of control with each other. The younger children played innocently with the few toys they brought, clueless to what was happening. Older children wore the worry on their faces. The men, all active duty soldiers, answered their phones that were ringing off the hook from their commanders and fellow soldiers. The women were very quiet, waiting for what was to come. Every minute was an eternity, not knowing how long we would be in there and what the world would look like whenever, if ever, we were able to leave...
Then suddenly, to everyone's relief, one of the men announced, "False alarm, Guys! False alarm. There is no missile!" The tension in the room suddenly dissipated as if someone had popped our balloon of stress. We filed out of the concrete makeshift "safe room" and all went home. We went on with our normally scheduled day as if nothing had ever happened, but something did. The reality of it all never left our minds. Everyone who experienced the "missile that never was" carried the worry for the rest of the day or longer. We can't get it off our minds. It's still there. It was stressful. It was surreal. It left us feeling helpless. But it left us with something else as well... the desire to be more prepared. I hope we never have to experience anything close to that again. But if we do, you better believe we will have flashlights, food, water, first aid kits, and a good idea of where to go at the ready. "The missile that never was" was actually a huge wakeup call, and I am listening.