KOLOA, Hawaii — Minutes before a cacophony of Cold War-era sirens blared across Hawaii on Friday, the staff at a Kauai Island adventure tour operator paused to gather in an outdoor parking lot. Huddled in the partial shade of palm trees, five colleagues embraced an expectant moment of quiet. The silence was cut at 11:45 a.m., as the sirens wailed for the first time in a generation.
As nuclear tensions between North Korea and the United States foment, Hawaii has reinstated a test of a statewide nuclear attack warning system not utilized since the 1980s. The drill will be repeated on the first business day of the month for the foreseeable future.
“It was as anticlimactic as I expected, but I wanted to come outside and really hear it,” said Peggy Sowl, sales manager at Kauai Outfitters. “Maybe they should be playing Broadway tunes if it’s the last sound we’re going to hear in the last 15 minutes of our lives.”
For Sowl, making light of the situation is more than just a coping mechanism, it’s a strategy for staying sane as talk of a potential nuclear attack increases.
“I can’t live every day worrying about it,” she said. “Go to the beach, go for a swim, hug a friend. We’re living in a weird time, but life has to go on or the bad guys already won.”
Siren drills for hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters are routine events in the islands, but the renewed need for a nuclear drill had some residents here on edge. Erin Keller, a 33-year-old restaurant owner, said the siren drill was all her cooks could talk about Friday morning.
“It’s making everyone nervous,” Keller said. “Generally I feel like living in Hawaii makes it so that you’re kind of removed from that sense of drama and danger. But the proximity of Hawaii to North Korea changes everything. Are we sticking out like a sore thumb?”
In the event of a real nuclear attack, the sirens islanders heard Friday will serve as a 15-minute warning to unite with loved ones and take cover. That’s how long experts say it would take a nuclear missile launched from North Korea to reach Hawaii and potentially destroy it.
Hawaii Emergency Management Agency officials have said the probability of a nuclear missile attack in Hawaii is extremely low, and the agency projects that 90 percent of the state’s 1.4 million residents would survive.
John Teschner, a 37-year-old grant writer, said he believes the threat of nuclear attack from North Korea could be an imminent reality. News of yet another missile launch this week made it difficult for him to concentrate on work.
“We are in an era when it’s not unlikely that a nuclear war could break out, and this whole time it has felt like Hawaii has a target on its back,” Teschner said. “I have often thought that it’s impossible for people in my generation to imagine feeling vulnerable to the real threat of a nuclear war, like what my parents’ generation must have felt during the nuclear standoff with the Cuban missile crisis. And then today I realized, ‘Oh, this is how they felt.’”
Teschner expressed concern over the fine line the state government is walking as it attempts to craft a nuclear preparedness campaign without scaring off any of the 8.9 million tourists that keep Hawaii’s economy afloat.
“Obviously there’s this tension between the tourism industry and nuclear safety, and there’s this idea that we don’t want to mar Hawaii’s image as a paradise,” Teschner said.
Kurt Leong, a Kauai Island fire captain, said there hasn’t been enough public education about how islanders can attempt to protect themselves from radioactivity. One positive ripple effect of Friday’s drill, Leong said, is that it is prompting people to prepare and strategize.
“We were talking about it this morning at the firehouse, and we don’t know exactly what the proper protocol is,” Leong said. “I do think the federal government and the state and the counties have a long way to go in terms of getting that information out there to the public. It’s not like it’s pasted everywhere about what to do.”
At Ka’elepulu Elementary School on Hawaii’s most populous island of Oahu, Principal Jamie Dela Cruz said students have been busy working with their families to assemble “courage kits,” small packages of family photos and comfort foods to help keep students calm in the event of a nuclear attack during classroom hours.
“These are uncertain times and we want to be prepared,” Dela Cruz said. “We want to be prepared by having a stock of water, and we want to be prepared for what it could stir up emotionally.”
But some public educators haven’t broached the subject. Laura Chang, a 67-year-old custodian, said she is dismayed that her grandchildren haven’t received instruction at school about how to respond in the event of a nuclear attack.
“I told my 13-year-old granddaughter, ‘If you hear the siren you take out your phone, you call your mother and you talk to her for 15 minutes,” she said. “‘Go underneath the desk, call your mother, and know that I love you.’”
Many residents of the famously laid-back island chain met the piercing sound of sirens Friday with a healthy dose of ease and detachment, describing it as little more than background noise.
“If there were a nuclear bomb here, I would probably just try to be calm and enjoy the meltdown,” said Tom Lieber, a 68-year-old abstract painter. “My thought is, ‘Have a good time, this could be it.’”