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38 Minutes Of Panic In Hawaii


There were 38 minutes of high anxiety in Hawaii yesterday when people there received an emergency alert that there was an incoming ballistic missile. Turns out, it was a false alarm issued by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, and Governor David Ige has apologized. But the event left a lot of people shaken, including our own White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who is on Oahu for vacation. And she joins us now. Hey, Tam.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I guess you weren't expecting this. Tell me where you were and what happened.

KEITH: So I was in my hotel room trying to get my 5-year-old to leave the room. And all of the sudden, this alert came through. And I was like, all right, buddy, now we really have to go. And so we all went down to the lobby of the hotel. And people were standing around really truly concerned. And what I discovered as the morning went on and we found out that it was a false alarm, is that as concerned as the tourists were, the people who live here and work here were genuinely shaken even more than the tourists.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So explain what people told you. I mean, what was the atmosphere like? What were they saying? Were they actually thinking that a ballistic missile might sort of land on Hawaii?

KEITH: Yeah. People just didn't know what to believe. And the alert that came through the phone said this is not a test; this is not a drill. So when you get an alert that says this is not a drill, you have to sort of take it at face value. And people really truly were taking it at face value, including my family. And people didn't know what to do.

I've since spoken to people who live here in Hawaii who said that they had gotten some warning in the past that if you get an alert, you have 15 minutes to find shelter. But it was really truly unnerving.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I know between when the alert went out it - it was about over 30 minutes until they were told that it was actually a mistake. So during that period, there must've been a lot going through people's minds.

KEITH: Yeah. I overheard one woman talking about feeling like maybe she should be calling her family on the mainland and telling them where her will was. And, you know, I called into the office. And...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we're grateful.

KEITH: Yes. And I was told that Representative Gabbard had tweeted out that it was a false alarm. And so I knew that before any new alerts came, before they came on the loudspeaker at the hotel and said everything's OK, this was a false alarm. And I had actually deleted Twitter for vacation. So I got my news by calling into NPR.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tam, I know that you're on vacation, and so you're not actually out there reporting this story. But I am curious. After something like this, do you sense that people are in a heightened state of alert? Did it sort of make this situation slightly more real? Obviously, the idea being that this might have been a missile coming from North Korea, for example.

KEITH: You know, I've overheard a lot of people. You know, I'm an eavesdropper by profession. And I've overheard a lot of people who are local to Hawaii who are sort of skeptical of this or skeptical that it really was just a mistake. They aren't sure what to believe. And I think that, you know, given this heightened sensitivity with North Korea and the bellicose language and the strong language on Twitter and in statements coming from the North Korean government - you know, here's the thing; it was plausible. And this is a unique time in our history where something like that, for the first time in both of our lifetimes, something like that is plausible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tam, I'm going to ask you - what did you tell your 5-year-old?

KEITH: I have not quite figured out how to explain it. But I did explain that - once we knew that it was a test - that everything was OK and that someone probably just screwed up in a really big way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tamara Keith, normally our White House correspondent, please, enjoy the rest of your vacation and thanks for calling in.

KEITH: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.