Building disaster resilience: It can even happen in Hawaiian ‘paradise’

Robert Mitchell, M.D., heads up Disaster Medicine Project.

Despite all my training and practice, what I do in a drill is likely to be different than what I would do in a real disaster or catastrophic event! Heart beating out of my chest, adrenaline rushing, size and kind of event, where I am (home, work, in my car, on vacation, away from my usual stomping grounds), away from or with my family, what people around me are doing, who I’m with — all would influence my actions and thinking in a real, life-threatening emergency.

Saturday, accidentally the message — “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL” – was sent to Hawaii residents and tourists per Hawaiian Emergency Management Agency plans. It also went out to televisions and radios.

Beyond the obvious repercussions to the erring emergency agency personnel and inevitable changes to emergency processes and systems, what happened following this “false” alarm in Hawaii gives us a raw, unfiltered and potentially ugly glimpse into real, spontaneous human reactions. Survival instincts kick in and override usual behaviors and etiquette. For example, cars were seen deliberately going through traffic red lights likely hurrying to get home or to find shelter. Fortunately, there were no accidents. Such behavior would not happen during a scheduled “drill” where everyone knows what is coming; rules, laws and authority are always respected and followed. Not likely in a real emergency.

What should we do if faced with an actual missile emergency alert and possible nuclear event?

First, be alert and aware of your surroundings so as not to be swept up and injured in potential panic-driven activity.

Second, find shelter, preferably underground, in a basement or at least in the middle of a building to provide protection from airborne fallout particles and contamination; close doors and windows. If in your car, close the windows and shut off the outside airflow vent while you seek shelter. If you are outside, cover your nose and mouth with your shirt or necktie, a towel or cloth. Anything to help prevent breathing-in radiation-contaminated dust particles. An excellent link for details.

Hospitals, 9-1-1 and emergency agencies will likely be overwhelmed. Stay sheltered until instructed otherwise.

Early on, don’t wait to be told what to do. Time is often critical. Actively seek information from reliable sources using internet, phone, radio, TV, etc. as needed to help in your ongoing decision-making and actions. Be aware of the potential for social media misinformation.

Beyond the deep sigh of relief that follows, false alarms — as long as they don’t happen often — serve as stark reminders of what could happen. Family and school discussions, preparedness and planning, neighborhood programs, e.g. Map Your Neighborhood, Stop the Bleed training, CERT, Medical Reserve Corps – are locally available ways to get involved and stay informed.

Please email me with questions or for guidance to the above organizations and trainings in our area.

— By Robert J. Mitchell, M.D., FACOG


An Edmonds resident, Dr. Mitchell serves as the Managing Director of the Disaster Medicine Project, a local non-profit service organization dedicated to community disaster-resilience building. In 2016, he joined the instructor team of Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Fellowship in Disaster Medicine, as Director of Community Disaster Medicine.

One Reply to “Building disaster resilience: It can even happen in Hawaiian ‘paradise’”

  1. Having a “family plan” is so important. Hawaii is a great reminder as to “why” this important, despite it being a drill. Thanks Bob for the reminder!


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