We knew there was a big swell coming in, so when the alarm blared on my phone at 8 a.m., my first sleepy thought was that we were flooding and needed to evacuate. It’s the waves, I thought drowsily. Then I read the notice on my phone.
“Emergency Alert BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
We’re not really disaster preppers on Oahu. Most of us grab our hurricane provisions in a mad rush to Costco and Walmart in the days before a storm hits. And we have a long history of pulling together during crisis. Aloha is a state of mind, but it’s also shown through actions. Our sense of community, known as ohana, is strong. We all sink or swim together. So that was the excuse I’d given myself for not ensuring that we were prepared as a family to shelter in place during a nuclear strike. That and a big fat case of denial that the country I love has devolved to such a place.
I was home with my daughter, my service dog Pono, and Rosie the chinchilla, who belongs to my daughter, Abby. When I read the alarm, I jump out of bed and grab my glasses. I run to Abigail’s room. “Get up honey. You have to get up right now. Right now. Grab your pillow. Go to the bathroom. Turn on the tub and run it. Turn it off when it’s full. Sit in the corner. Wait for me. Be brave. I’ll be right there.” I give her a hug and a kiss and run off.
I run past Rosie in her huge cage and make a calculated decision that she won’t come into the bathroom with us. The cage wouldn’t fit and I wasn’t about to have a loose chinchilla running around during a nuclear disaster. I think about how my daughter would never trust me again if I tell her this. I shot Rosie a look of sympathy and went to search for the dog.
I run to the back yard. It was such a stunningly typical, beautiful Hawaiian morning. Blue sky and bird song.
“Brandon?” I try my husband on his cellphone but the line is dead. I send a text to tell him we love him and that we’d shelter in the bathroom. I pray he’s somewhere a missile wouldn’t go, and that wherever he was had thick walls and water. I grab my medications, quickly fill a jug of water, and run to drop it off and check on Abby.
“Mom? What’s happening?” She’s not crying, she’s pale, terrified, wide-eyed and wearing pajamas with cartoon characters on them. “Stay there baby. I’ll be right back.” Off again to find the dog. I grab chocolate bars that were sitting in a drawer on the way, thinking they’re quick calories.
I scan the house for Pono in a panic and realize he’s outside. I hesitate at the doorway, wondering what people would say if they learned I was nuked while trying to get the dog. I think of Dorothy chasing after Toto while the tornado is bearing down. Then I think of what a very good service dog he is, and how he wakes me up when I faint, and ran outside.
The neighborhood is silent.
Pono comes running when he hears the tone of my voice. When he sees Abby, he puts his head right next to her.
I grab pillows and quilts off the beds and run back to the bathroom. The tub is nearly overflowing because Abby is too scared to move and turn it off. I settle in next to my daughter and the dog, and see a text from my husband: “On my way home.” I write back, “No. Find a place to stay.” He had been on a rural road with no shelter on the way to town, so had turned around. “Be there in two minutes.”
I pray whatever was about to hit us was going to take longer than two minutes.
I spread the quilt out on the floor, hand Abby a pillow, and calmly ask her if they talked about duck and cover in school. I realize that I don’t know much about duck and cover because I’m only 36 years old and I grew up in a world without nuclear threats. I fake the confidence and teach my fourth-grader how to pull her knees up to her chest, lean her head down into them and cover her neck with her arms.
“Mom, why are we doing this? Please? What’s going on?” We don’t talk about our president with our daughter very much. I don’t have many good things to say about him and I don’t want her to feel the pressure of very grown-up problems.
When she asks, I try to answer her judiciously. We have never discussed the fact that for the last year we have lived in a state under nuclear threat. “Well, honey, you know that sometimes countries pick fights with each other and that’s what a war is?” “Yeah …” “Well, our president has been picking a fight with another country and they have missiles. Do you know what a missile is?” She nods. “So we just got a warning that the other country sent a missile to Hawaii. Until our military can blow it up we need to shelter somewhere safe just in case.” Another nod. Another group hug with the dog. “Where’s daddy?” Abby asks, and I note that she never calls him daddy anymore. “On his way, baby. He’ll be here any minute.”
For the first time, I wonder why the civil defense sirens didn’t go off. We’re supposed to have sirens- the state has been testing them for the last two months. The fear I felt the first time I heard the nuke test siren, it turns out, is only a modicum of the fear I feel now, cowering in a bathroom with my child.
I berate myself for not having a go-bag ready, for not having a box of emergency supplies stored in the bathroom, in the cars, in my husband’s office. I pray our failing to prepare won’t mean our deaths.
I let go of Abigail and tell her I need to check my phone. My browser is open to Twitter, so I refresh the page. I scroll past tweets about the missile alert in Hawaii. Warnings to seek shelter. Inappropriate jokes made out of stress. I refresh the page and see that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) tweeted that it was a false alarm. I keep scrolling because I need more evidence. Another tweet from Senator Schatz, who retweeted (and has since deleted?) something from a federal agency saying that it was a false alarm. I refresh again. Major news outlets and elected government figures are saying it’s a false alarm.
I hear my husband, Brandon, drive up, and I shakily stand. I tell Abigail to stay where she is and run out to Brandon and we hug. He doesn’t know it’s over yet and we’re both shaking. “I always thought if this happened I would be with my family,” he said later, as we were sitting outside decompressing.
We lead Abigail out of the bathroom, but we’re still uneasy. We live close to a firehouse and haven’t heard trucks go out on a single call. There has been no public response from our state or federal government. Twitter is our only source. “Is my friend still having her birthday party today?” Abigail asks.
Thirty minutes after the alert and still no all-clear. Thirty-five minutes. Finally, 38 minutes after the false alarm, we receive emergency text alerts stating the all-clear. It takes even longer for the state to send notices out over the radio and television. Both firetrucks leave, sirens blaring, on calls.
It’s only been a few hours, but the sense of unease is still there.
Brandon and I have decided to make emergency kits and go-bags and I’ll be researching how to buy iodine in bulk. We’ll have a conversation with Abby, and have drills as a family.
Not right now though.
Right now we’re sitting on the lanai, enjoying being together, dog snoring at our side, while our kid runs in and out of the yard, wearing a unicorn headband, helping her friend get ready for her birthday party.
Allison Wallis is a disability studies graduate student at the University of Hawaii. She lives on the North Shore of Oahu with her family.