Eight minutes to live

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The Iowa Dispatch features the voices of Iowans scattered around the country and the world, offering a local perspective on national and international issues.

Illustration by Jordan Sellergren

Ha’aheo ka ua I naa pali
Ke nihi a’ela I ka nahele
E uhai ana paha I ka liko
Pua ‘ahihi lehua o uka

On Nov. 26, 2017, the Hawai’ian government reinstated the “attack warning” siren amidst growing fears of a possible missile attack from North Korea. My wife, Julia, and I were living in Wailuku, a town on the island of Maui. Along with the rest of the citizens of Hawai’i, we had watched with growing apprehension as Trump and Kim Jong Un began their volley of insults and threats with our islands stuck in between. Trump’s earlier declaration to “Boycott Hawai’i” because of the state’s refusal to uphold his travel ban also added to the feeling that we would be an acceptable loss if nukes started flying. There was strong skepticism that North Korea had actually created an ICBM which could reach us, but the state government wasn’t taking any chances.

Hawai’i had been preparing for the possibility of a nuclear attack for months prior to the reinstatement of the sirens as tensions flared and volatile rhetoric was lobbed back and forth across the Pacific. Many of the Japanese residents still feel the reverberations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor linger in the minds of Hawai’ian residents. And yet, these preparations didn’t give much comfort to many of us as the reality of an impact loomed ever closer.

We were told that we would have anywhere between eight and 12 minutes between the sounding of the alarm and when the missile would hit. We were made aware that there were no air raid shelters still in place, so the governor told us we should find a cave to hide in. We were informed that we should double our hurricane rations in the event of staying put for two weeks after the bomb fell. We weren’t told much more beyond that.

We would have eight minutes.

O ka hali’a aloha I hiki mai
Ke hone a’e nei i
Ku’u manawa
‘O ‘oe noo ka’u ipo aloha
A loko e hana nei

The elementary school at which I was a paraprofessional, working one-on-one with a student with autism, decided to have all of their emergency drills on one day. First came the fire drill. Then came the evacuation drill. Next was the new standard in all schools, the active shooter drill. Over the intercom, we were informed that the drill had begun. The teacher and I began to shutter the windows and lock the door, quickly gathering the children into a corner, shushing them as they huddled together and someone came around and banged on each door until the all clear was given.

Finally, our last drill was for the air raid sirens. The principal informed us that in the event of the sirens going off, students and staff were told to crawl under our desks and place our hands on top of our heads. We were asked to “duck and cover.” The principal then attempted to play the air raid siren over the intercom but after a few minutes of silence broken by hushed curses, we were told to just imagine the sirens going off and to remain crouched under our desks. When we were released from this charade of security, one of the children yelled, “Why are we even doing this? We won’t be saved from the blast or the fallout!”

Maopopo ku’u ‘ike I ka nani
Naa pua rose o Maunawili
I Laila hia’ia naa manu
Miki’ala I ka nani o ka lipo

Julia and I awoke a bit later than usual on the morning of Jan. 13, 2018, just after 8 a.m. Going through our routines, I had finished cleaning the coffee pot when Julia asked, “Shane, what’s this message? It’s all over Facebook!” Handing her phone to me, I read, “Emergency Alert BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

If you only had eight minutes to live, how do you think you would spend them? For us, we spent the first five minutes disbelieving the message. How can this be happening? This can’t be real! But we watched as more of our friends posted the same message and even more began saying goodbye to their loved ones in short, resigned posts.

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“What should we do?” Julia asked as she looked up from her phone and into my eyes. I put my arms around her and held her close in a tight embrace.

“We wait,” I answered.

Aloha ‘oe, aloha ‘oe
E ke onaona noho I ka lipo
One fond embrace
A ho’I a’e au
Until we meet again

It was 38 minutes before the state issued another alert claiming the previous had been a “false alarm.” By then the panic had touched us all. Cars were abandoned on highways, children put into storm drains, the local Target had kicked customers out of their store and left them crying in the parking lot. Theories began circling about what had happened.

And yet, we were alive, and we all shared in that relief. Julia and I spent the rest of the day drinking mimosas at our friend’s hair salon.

We were told a wrong button was pushed.

Three days later, a staffer at NHK, Japan’s national public broadcast, similarly “pushed a wrong button” and sent out a false missile warning to 300,000 people in Japan.

On Feb. 27, Hawai’i stopped future attack warning drills.

And now we’re seemingly at peace with North Korea. The two leaders, who just last winter were causing worldwide concern with their traded insults, now smile and shake hands as if it was all a silly game they had finished playing.

North and South Korea plan to hold another summit in September to discuss denuclearization. The threat of nuclear war, at least from North Korea, seems to be rapidly diminishing. The realization of how grossly unprepared we are to handle such a situation, however, still lingers.

Eight months later, those eight minutes continue to remind me to hug and hold my wife whenever I get the chance. And that for many on this planet, the missile warning isn’t false.

’O ka hali’a aloha I hiki mai
Ke hone a’e nei i
Ku’u manawa
‘O ‘oe nō ku’u ipo aloha
A loko e hana nei

—“Aloha ‘Oe” (“Farewell to Thee”), Lili’uokalani, 1878

Shane O’Shaughnessy recently traded the ocean for fields of corn, which are not entirely dissimilar. Aside from the spurts of writing, Shane also draws comics about potatoes and hot dogs and performs in TECHNO-LINCOLN and The Technicolor Union. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 249.

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  1. A scary reminder of the beauty and sacredness of every day. Well done, Shane. I’m so glad it was just a false alarm, for all our sakes. (I did have to chuckle about the “duck and cover” advice and that the student saw the ludicrousness of the command. Reminded me of the same advice during the 60s.)

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