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In Case of North Korean Attack, Hawaii Revives Cold War-Era Preparations

Starting in November, Hawaii residents statewide will hear an air raid warning siren test that's not been heard since the Cold War: a wailing alert that potentially would be used to warn of a North Korean missile attack.

By William Cole

Starting in November, Hawaii residents statewide will hear an air raid warning siren test that's not been heard since the Cold War: a wailing alert that potentially would be used to warn of a North Korean missile attack.

The new tone -- which differs from the more familiar "attention alert" steady sound for threats such as hurricanes and tsunamis -- is part of a new state preparedness and information campaign aimed at addressing the growing North Korean threat.

That threat level -- potentially delivering the destructive force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 -- has ushered back some 1950s-era practices that would be almost pointless with the megaton yields and multiple warheads of today's Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons.

Elements of the plan were detailed Friday by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, which is attempting to walk a fine line between preparing the state for the unlikely event of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile attack and not causing unnecessary alarm in a state dependent on tourism.

"We do not want to cause any undue stress for the public; however, we have a responsibility to plan for all hazards. We don't know the exact capabilities or intentions of the North Korean government, but there is clear evidence that it is trying to develop ballistic missiles that could conceivably one day reach our state. Therefore, we cannot wait to begin our public information campaign to ensure that Hawaii residents will know what to do if such an event occurs," Vern Miyagi, HEMA administrator, said in a media release Thursday.

Miyagi said Friday in an interview that "the question comes up: Why now?" with the preparedness plan, given that the threat level is low. However, Hawaii residents repeatedly ask, "What is Hawaii doing?" Miyagi said.

Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony, a state Department of Defense spokesman, said, "We've been told that every single town hall that (Gov. David Ige) holds, the question comes up about what Hawaii is doing" about North Korea's capabilities.

The wailing siren that will be tested in November actually harks back to World War II air raid sirens used in Hawaii, said Toby Clairmont, HEMA's executive officer.

"That capability has been in our state for all these years, but we haven't had to use it," Clairmont said. The air raid siren will be tested to see how well it is differentiated from the regular "attention alert" tone.

"So we need to start getting people thinking about this, because we are going to be triggering these sirens in November," Clairmont said. Both alerts will be broadcast on the same system of about 400 sirens during the regularly monthly test, the agency said.

State officials are postulating a possible 15-kiloton North Korean nuclear device detonated 1,000 feet above Honolulu, which would be survivable for the vast majority of the state's residents. For comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 also was 15 kilotons.

The state plans to run public service announcements starting in September and provide other information that stresses immediately seeking shelter in a building, preferably with thick concrete, in an attack.

Hawaii would have just 20 minutes from launch of a North Korean ICBM until impact. About five minutes would be needed for U.S. Pacific Command at Camp H.M. Smith to characterize the launch, Clairmont said. The command would then call over to what's known as the "state warning point" at HEMA's underground Birk­himer tunnel at Diamond Head, which is manned around the clock.

That would leave 12 to 15 minutes to warn the public.

New guidance on HEMA's website advises to "get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned" to local AM-FM broadcasts.

"Surviving the immediate effects of a nuclear detonation (blast, shock, thermal radiation, initial nuclear radiation) requires sheltering in resistant structures," the guidance states.

Schools already practice for "active shooter" scenarios, and those drills, including moving children to the center of the building and locking doors, provide double duty for nuclear preparedness, officials said.

A nuclear device results in two sources of radiation, including high-dose gamma radiation emitted from the detonation, and fallout from debris that carries radiation into the sky that then rains down, Clairmont said.

Structures miles from the blast hypocenter can provide varying degrees of protection, with thick concrete -- such as in high-rises and parking structures -- providing more protection.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority raised concerns about the preparedness campaign, given the threat level is deemed low.

"From the governor's office, it's extremely important to say that Hawaii is open for business. We're still the best destination for visitors," said Maj. Gen. Arthur "Joe" Logan, who directs the state Department of Defense. "This is just another hazard that we're preparing for. We don't want to scare anybody and say, 'Don't come to Hawaii.'"

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, ICBMs came off Hawaii's threat list of mostly natural hazards in the late 1990s. With North Korea's advances, such missiles are returning as a concern.

(c)2017 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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