On Saturday, Jan. 13, Hawaii suffered a false alarm that rocked Russell J. Strickland’s world. A warning went out statewide that a nonexistent nuclear missile strike was imminent. Roughly 38 minutes later, residents of the 50th state were alerted that it was all a mistake. Officials soon after revealed the accidental cause: During a shift change at Hawaii’s emergency management agency, someone had been doing a test of the alert button and had made a mistake. The individual was subsequently reassigned to other duties. The governor and others apologized profusely.
Such an incident would have seemed laughable just a few years ago. But with North Korea’s steady progress in both nuclear and missile capability and the aggressive language and threats that have ping-ponged between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the prospect of a nuclear missile strike is the greatest its been since the fall of the Soviet Union. Small wonder that warning in Hawaii wasn’t easily laughed off; there were reports of parents hiding children in the sewer, students at the University of Hawaii running for shelter in buildings and motorists waiting in a highway tunnel in hopes that they would be shielded from the attack.
For Mr. Strickland, executive director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, it raised all kinds of questions. The easiest was whether a false alarm could happen here. In that, the MEMA head is confident that it could not. Under the nation’s Emergency Alert System, federal civilian authorities, not the state, would broadcast such an initial warning. And even if someone had malicious intent, it still takes two individuals to broadcast a state warning, and the whole process is too elaborate to be done accidentally. “You get a chance to have second thoughts,” he said.
After that, the conversation becomes a lot more difficult, the questions less easily answered. What if the warning had been real? What if a missile was headed to Maryland or, perhaps more likely, nearby Washington, D.C.? Would MEMA know what to tell people? Would Marylanders know what to do? In other words, are we prepared for an event that has evolved from a Cold War mutually assured standoff to high improbable to, suddenly and unfortunately, thinkable again? Well, yes and no.
First, Mr. Strickland says, the prospect of nuclear fallout hasn’t been entirely unthinkable in this state. With the presence of a nuclear power plant at Calvert Cliffs in Southern Maryland and another in Peach Bottom in York County, Pa., MEMA and first responding agencies have been practicing for nuclear disaster for decades. In most cases, the alert would go something like this: Stay indoors for the next 48 hours, minimize your exposure to the outdoors and stay tuned for further instructions. Would people listen? Would they have enough supplies on hand to weather the consequences?
The MEMA director doesn’t know. How could he? All of which leads to his second point, it’s time to reassess nuclear preparedness. That’s not just true in Maryland, that’s the case across the entire United States given reports that North Korea’s improving missile range may allow East Coast attacks. Perhaps the public needs to be educated on what to do. That doesn’t mean a return to stocking fallout shelters with food and water, but it could involve educating the public on nuclear safety — as MEMA has long done in Calvert and Cecil counties where so many live in the shadow of a nuclear power plant.
“We are looking at old materials right now,” says Mr. Strickland, who served as head of emergency services in Harford County before he was tapped for his current post. “I don’t know that we’ll go back to the extreme of the 1960s, but we will be starting to emphasize public messages about basic steps you need to do.”
If Hawaii was a wake-up call, it was at least a gentle one. No one died or was even seriously injured during the false alarm. But it’s no longer just Hawaii and Guam that live under the threat of a nuclear attack from North Korea, and it’s time to face up to that new reality. If nothing else, it might bring home to any deniers out there the sad truth that Maryland’s version of the Doomsday Clock requires recalibration. It’s gotten a lot closer to midnight.
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