Oliveira: Feds don’t need to be involved in missile alerts

He doesn’t believe Hawaii is a target

Brig. Gen. Bruce Oliveira, who reviewed the practices of the state Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of the false missile alert, said the agency will need to “earn that respect and trust back” from residents. He appeared at a West Maui Taxpayers Association disaster preparedness meeting Wednesday. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

LAHAINA — The lead internal investigator of Hawaii’s false missile alert in January dismissed talk of transferring responsibility of notifying the public of a missile attack to the federal government.

Brig. Gen. Bruce Oliveira acknowledged, however, that the state Emergency Management Agency will need to “earn that respect and trust back” from residents.

“Unfortunately, it’s going to take time,” Oliveira said Wednesday night after an emergency planning meeting at the West Maui Senior Center. “That’s about all that can happen and just not making mistakes.

“It’s showing everyone that if something does happen they can be depended on.”

He also doesn’t believe Hawaii is a target of North Korea anymore and called a nuclear attack “highly unlikely.”

On the morning of Jan. 13, the state Emergency Management Agency sent a cellphone alert informing residents and tourists to seek immediate shelter due to a ballistic missile threat — followed by the words: “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

The message sent people on Maui and other islands into a state of panic, with reports of motorists speeding on roadways and people taking refuge in manholes. Some stores told shoppers to leave.

It took agency officials nearly 40 minutes to send out a second notice over the alert system that there was no threat.

It was clear that many were unprepared for an attack and had no emergency plan, said Oliveira, who conducted an internal investigation for the emergency agency in January.

“I think there were a lot of people who didn’t know what to do,” he said. “There was a lot of panicking.”

Oliveira, who serves as community programs director for the state Department of Defense, visited the island to help West Maui residents create an emergency operations plan that includes dealing with a missile attack. The community plan is the only one currently being developed in the county.

“We’ve been holding a lot of outreach and education events at schools, churches and town halls,” Oliveira said. “It’s still the surface, though, it’s not reaching down to everyone. We’re doing something to help the community, but you get very few that actually turnout for it.

“What I saw during the false alarm is that people really didn’t know what to do and really didn’t care.”

More than a dozen people showed up for the meeting hosted by the West Maui Taxpayers Association. The group has been working for the past nine months with county and state emergency agencies, as well as the Pacific Disaster Center, on developing a customized disaster plan for West Maui, which could be cut off from other parts of the island during a disaster.

Association Vice President Joe Pluta said West Maui residents began forming the plan due to their isolation from the hospital and airport during frequent road closures, fires and flooding. He said it will take at least another six months to finish the disaster plan, but it will need buy-in from residents, businesses and elected officials to gain traction.

“If the community doesn’t buy into it, then it’s just another piece of paper sitting somewhere that nobody pays attention to,” Pluta said.

Among the unresolved issues are what facility will serve as an incident command post, defining roles during a disaster and what resources are available. Pluta also wondered how to implement the plan in the community.

“Right now, we have a plan with no real empowerment and no state or county or federal authority to say all of you have to cooperate with us,” he said to the group.

There is some action in the state Legislature that may clarify roles and liability during a disaster. The fear of liability appeared to be the reason stores, which reportedly included Target on Maui and Walmart on Oahu, told shoppers to leave when the missile alert sounded, despite being ideal places to shelter.

“Walmart came out and said we shouldn’t have done that and blocked our doors,” Oliveira said. “Because if that was a real incident, you need to look for the nearest reinforced concrete building.”

House Bills 2673 and 2693 would prohibit businesses from denying shelter during emergencies, including missile threats, and provides liability immunity with certain exceptions. Pluta said the bills would “absolutely help” communities partner with local businesses as the group develops its emergency plan.

In the community with world-class resorts, Pluta noted hotels have some of the highest liabilities in the state because they are legally responsible for the safety of their guests. He said they undergo drills periodically and must show they are prepared in order to get their occupancy permit from the county.

“They’re more prepared than anybody,” said Pluta, a past president of the Maui Hotel Association. “The safest place to be is a big hotel, quite frankly. They have shelter and food. If disaster comes, check into a hotel one night.”

At the federal level, Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz introduced a bill to transfer all missile attack alerts to the federal government and to disallow local governments from notifying citizens about threats. Oliveira said the law would add an unnecessary step to the process because state law requires the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency to manage the alert system.

“My opinion is I think it should stay the same,” he said. “We made some corrections, and we have the professional people to do that.”

Several workers have resigned or been fired in the fallout over the false alarm, including the unnamed “button pusher,” and changes have been made to the process, Oliveira said. Multiple signoffs are now required before a missile alert is sent and a follow-up alert can be sent out immediately in case the agency releases another false alarm.

In his report, Oliveira recommended that agency workers train on a system designated for practicing, rather than the actual system, similar to flight simulators for pilots. He added that the checklist supervisors used for drills should have been more specific and required the supervisor double-checking work.

“There was a lot of good practices and best practices that people talked about, but it really wasn’t written down,” he said.

Oliveira said the missile alert woke up people to disaster preparedness and that there are many “other hazards that are very real and catastrophic to our people,” such as hurricanes and tsunami. But in the case of a nuclear attack, he advised residents to have two weeks worth of supplies and to move to the center of a room.

“A lot of people think if a bomb hit it would be a nuclear holocaust, and everything would be gone, but that’s not true,” he said. “Ninety percent of the population would survive.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, he told the group that it was “highly unlikely” North Korea would target Hawaii. He does not believe the state is a target anymore.

“They still haven’t proven they have any accurate capability so why would you go after tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific, when you have large land masses you can go after and send the same kind of message?” he said. “We also have ballistic missile defenses that they don’t have so they can get a shot off, but everything will be raining in on them so it would be suicide if they did that.”

Pluta hopes the attention brought by the false alarm will increase participation in the emergency planning process and encouraged the community to attend its next meeting March 15.

“It’s going to turn out to be a blessing,” he said of the false alarm. “Although I’m sure the people who thought the attack was real at the time won’t think so, it’s going to result in a much better result in safety and alert for the entire state.”

West Maui Taxpayers Association’s office is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 181 Lahainaluna Road. For more information, call 661-7990 or go to westmaui.org.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.