“Where are we supposed to go?”
It was January 13, 2018, a beautiful morning on Kauai. The sun was out, the trade winds were breezing through and everyone, it seemed, was stuck in a traffic jam somewhere on the island. Strangers posed the question through open car windows in Kapaa’s standstill traffic that Saturday morning, about an hour after the Hawaii issued an incoming missile alert.
Those who were lucky enough to snag tables for breakfast at one of the overflowing restaurants in town swapped the same kinds of questions: “What could we really do?”
I wondered the same thing.
Just after 8 a.m. on that Saturday in January, at the start of a weekend meant for beach camping at Polihale State Park, a bodiless female voice sounded throughout my small studio in Kapaa, announcing an imminent missile inbound to Hawaii.
The voice came from my television, which I thought we’d turned off the night before. If that wasn’t disconcerting enough in a half-sleepy state, the warning itself propelled me out of bed.
I wasn’t sure if the alert was real. No sirens were sounding and the morning’s clear sunshine indicated the calmest of days, but I grabbed a bag of random supplies anyway and started toward the Wailua Homesteads area, where friends were gathering.
Looking back, it was a happy coincidence my camping gear was already smashed into my tiny car. In the event of an emergency, having those supplies already packed would have been a benefit.
The parking lot at the Menehune Mart in Kapahi was slammed, but I sent my boyfriend in for another gallon of water anyway — just in case.
He walked in the door and turned right back around as everyone else in the neighborhood had the same idea: Even if we weren’t wiped off the planet in the next half hour, there was a chance food and water shortages could become a reality. Better be prepared.
People in the parking lot and inside the store questioned each other on the validity of the alert as they grabbed whatever supplies they could: “You hear about this missile, brah? Is this real? What do we do?”
By the time we made it to our destination in the Homesteads, I’d received enough confirmation the alert was false that I’d calmed down. Friends and family slowly began to relax as they cooked breakfast for everyone — except for me.
For a journalist, it was time to go to work.
Jumping onto the roads in Kapaa after the false alert was a nightmare. A three-vehicle collision at 6 a.m. closed Kuhio Highway in both directions in Wailua until about 9 a.m., with traffic routing through old cane haul roads.
I was sure cars were going to be backed up for hours.
As soon as I turned northbound into Kuhio Highway’s statuesque queue, sirens warned of a convoy of first responders weaving their way through cars that couldn’t really move off the road.
Sitting in gridlock, the same question popped into my head: Where are we supposed to go?
In the midst of the chaos, my phone sounded another alert — this time a news tip from a Kauai source letting me know someone had backed her 2013 white Ford Focus into Moikeha Canal.
Good thing I was headed in the right direction. I dropped my car off in the Olympic Cafe parking lot and high-tailed it down the back streets a couple blocks until I saw a group of onlookers hanging out on the bridge above the canal.
Sure enough, the Focus was submerged to the middle of the windows. The woman, who declined to give her name, said she simply hit the wrong pedal after going to breakfast across the street. She said it wasn’t connected to the alert.
She and two other passengers leapt out of the car before it went over the embankment, but personal items were destroyed. The owners of the tow company said her car would succumb to rust in no time.
A man on vacation from the Midwest watched them lift the car out of the canal from the bridge with about 20 tourists and residents. He said he couldn’t believe what he was experiencing.
“I’m going to tell everyone in Minnesota that the missile did hit, but it just landed on this one car,” he joked.
Laughing was obviously a relief for everyone who heard that comment. Tensions were high in Kapaa on Saturday even before the false missile alert was issued because of the early morning collision.
As folks in Kapaa tried to piece together the rest of the day, sentiment turned from shock and confusion to anger for many people. Residents questioned the leadership of the state government and the reliability of the emergency management agency and its alerts.
Two buddies sat at a table in Olympic Café a couple of hours after the alert on Saturday morning, drinking Bloody Marys and recounting their adventures in the past few hours.
Neither of them heard anything about the missile alert. They were swimming with a pod of wild dolphins at Kealia Beach and enjoying the sunrise when much of the rest of the island was preparing for an incoming bomb.
“Don’t ruin my day with that,” one man said as people began asking him about his experience with the alert.
That triggered an answer to the question I’d been asking all day.
When the storm arrives, sometimes peace comes with focus on life’s lovely things. These guys were so lost in the peace of paradise they didn’t even know the storm — in this case a bomb — was supposedly on the way.
After they found out about the false alert, they didn’t get in an uproar about it either. They just continued to sip their cocktails and watch the ocean, talking about the friendly dolphins that stopped by for a swim on Saturday morning.
Written for The Garden Island Newspaper January 16, 2018. Photos by Jessica Else.