But after the Cold War, most places abandoned their sirens. Fears of terrorism grew more urgent and, for many younger Americans, being on notice for nuclear war became a relic of the past.
That’s no longer the case in Hawaii.
Amid increasing North Korean threats against the U.S., Hawaii has launched the most aggressive effort in the country to prepare for attack. TV commercials warn the state’s 1.4 million residents to “get inside, stay inside” if a bomb drops. State officials are holding online forums and flying between islands for town halls to field questions from residents.
On Dec. 1, the nuclear attack warning siren will be heard in the state for the first time in more than three decades.
A North Korean bomb is “a major, major concern,” Vern Miyagi, the administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said recently during a seminar he held for residents in a packed meeting room at the state’s Department of Defense offices in Honolulu. He painted a stark picture of what emergency officials expect if a nuclear missile was to reach Oahu.
“We are talking about 50,000 to 120,000 trauma and burn causalities together with nearly 18,000 fatalities,” Miyagi, the state’s chief expert on natural disasters and the North Korean threat, explained. The expected target: Pearl Harbor.
More accustomed to educating residents about hurricanes and tsunamis than atomic and hydrogen bombs, Miyagi displayed slides illustrating potential impact to the island from a 100-kiloton nuclear bomb detonated 1,000 feet above Honolulu. The explosion would hit an area about eight miles in diameter, he said. Ninety percent of people would survive the direct impact but could be hit by nuclear fallout and would have to navigate a crippled island.
“We anticipate severe damage to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, Hickam Air Force Base and Honolulu Harbor and Pearl Harbor. There will be widespread structural fires and building collapses. There will be damage to hospitals and government buildings,” Miyagi warned. He left open the possibility that other islands could be hit.
Hawaii has largely avoided North Korea’s crosshairs in recent months, though the nation has made threats against the state over the years. Concerns grew in 2009, when the Obama administration said the late Kim Jong Il could send a missile
But fears have further increased amid a tense standoff between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The U.S. military has recently focused on Guam, a U.S. territory much closer to North Korea that Kim has threatened.
The hurdles for North Korea are high. It’s not clear that the reclusive country has the technology yet to get a bomb to Hawaii. With around 4,000 miles between Pyongyang and Honolulu, the islands are a difficult target. In addition, Pacific Command, the U.S. military’s headquarters for the Asia-Pacific region, ran tests over the summer and says it is ready to intercept an intercontinental ballistic missile.
“Any attack against us is suicide,” Miyagi said, because U.S. retaliation against North Korea would be far greater.
Still, preparations are in full swing in Honolulu and elsewhere in the state. The new 50-second warning siren will follow a tsunami alert system that is tested monthly. State officials are telling residents to gather enough food to be able to remain indoors for as little as a few hours and as long as two weeks if a bomb hits.
“Right now we consider the threat to be very unlikely. But it doesn’t matter,” said Lt. Col. Charles Anthony, a spokesman for the Hawaii state Department of Defense. “If North Korea uses an intercontinental ballistic missile, from launch to impact in Hawaii is approximately 20 minutes.”
Anthony said the state could give residents a 12-15 minute warning, rendering old fallout shelters mostly useless because they are too far away.
At the recent information session in Honolulu, the 40 or so people who showed up were eager to find out more about the prospect of nuclear destruction, and how they could help their families and neighbors.
Joe Brown, a 61-year-old Honolulu resident who lives close to Pearl Harbor, asked if the state’s alert system of text and radio messages in addition to the sirens would jam cellphone and broadcast towers. The answer: possibly, though broadcast stations on other islands could probably still transmit messages.
“I believe the risk is very low. However, we need to know what will happen,” Brown said.
“We have five-gallon water containers at home and dried foods; we’re somewhat prepared and try to always be more prepared for disaster,” he said. “But, you know, with the president and what he tweets and says, we do get a little more concerned.”
Lourdes Scheibert, a 66-year-old who lives near downtown Honolulu, said she first began readying her home for an attack after tensions rose during the Obama administration. She has thick plastic sheets to cover her windows and had loaded up on masks to filter the air. A veteran of three hurricanes, she owns a prepackaged bucket with a 30-day supply of dried food for her family of five.
“You can’t depend on the government to help you. If you want to help yourself, you need to take care of yourself and your neighbors,” Scheibert said. “I’m watching the news. I have the alert system on my phone. I’m just waiting to see if things come about, though I hope they don’t at all.”