5 years ago, I was in Hawaii when I received an alert about an incoming missile. It was a false alarm but the fear I was about to die was very real.

  • It's been 5 years since people in Hawaii received an alert about an inbound missile.

  • It turned out to be a mistake, but as I raced to find shelter, I thought it was the end.

  • The stress of the experience still lingers today, and it totally changed my view of island living.

Five years ago, I was overlooking the calm Pacific Ocean, with sand between my toes, when my phone buzzed.


Oh, I thought, it's just a test of the system.

Then I realized what I'd read.


Earlier that morning — our last on Hawaii's Big Island before flying home to New York City after a week-long vacation — my husband and I had left our hotel, jumped in our rental car, and driven to the beach for one final dip in the ocean.

Now I looked over at him at the water's edge. His eyes were on his phone.

The alert sent to phones on January 13, 2018.
The alert sent to phones on January 13, 2018.ALISON TEAL/AFP via Getty Images

Feeling untethered, with no one to ask what to do and unsure how long we had to find shelter, we made a split-second decision to get back to the car and race to our hotel.

We sat in stressed silence as my husband drove, careening past the moon-like volcanic landscape. There were no other cars around. I turned on the radio, desperate for guidance on what to do, where to go, how to hide, but music played across the local station, like it was any other day.

But it wasn't: We were going to die.

Finally I found an article online telling me we'd have approximately 15 minutes between receiving an alert and a missile hitting. We'd need that long to get back to the hotel. I peered into the sky, not really sure what I was looking for.

My sister, who'd spent the week with us, texted from Honolulu Airport. Security was freaking out, she said.

"Stay safe!" I responded, hopelessly.

Finally, our hotel sign came into view. A police officer was standing in the middle of the road, waving his arms. We pulled next to him.

"False alarm," he said. "There is no missile."

My husband later told me he'd wanted to get back to our hotel so that when our bodies were found, they'd be able to identify us more easily.

The stress lingered for weeks

We'd later learn the alert, which went out to phones at 8:07 a.m. local time on January 13, 2018, and aired on television and radio, was mistakenly sent by an employee during a drill at Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency. It took 38 minutes for the agency to send a retraction.

In the hours and days afterwards, we weren't sure how to process what had happened — the feeling that we'd escaped death, when in reality, we'd been nowhere near it.

"That stress shaved a few years off my life," I texted my sister 10 minutes after we were given the all-clear.

"Thought it was game over for us there," she responded.

Texts after false missile alert in Hawaii in 2018.
The messages I exchanged with my sister during and after the false alert.Lydia Warren/Insider

Other people thought it was the end too. We read accounts of people speeding to reach their loved ones in time. Videos showed desperate parents forcing children into manholes. Matt LoPresti, a state representative, sheltered in the bathtub with his family, and they prayed.

And we'd had no reason to doubt the attack was real.

The alert came amid renewed nuclear threats between the US and North Korea, and Hawaii — a key strategic outpost for the US military that a North Korean missile could reach within 20 minutes — had started rolling out preparedness plans. Additionally, two weeks earlier, President Donald Trump had taunted North Korea by tweeting he had a "much bigger & more powerful" nuclear button than its leader Kim Jong Un.

Days after the alert, once I was back in New York City, I found myself recalling the experience with a laugh. But it didn't feel funny, and five years later, it still doesn't.

The experience changed my view of island living

Photo taken on Hawaii, minutes before the missile alert in 2018.
A photo shows the calm waters off a beach in Hawaii. I received the alert 30 minutes later.Lydia Warren/Insider

While the initial shock has worn off, the experience has affected me in other, surprising ways.

During those frantic minutes, I remember feeling incredibly vulnerable because of Hawaii's geography. The archipelago felt like a sitting target. There was no easy way off — that single-lane highway wouldn't get me across a border. I felt like the island was really small, and really alone.

A couple of years later, I went to Cyprus, an island I've visited since childhood. But this time, being on a small island brought up those feelings of panic. I felt really vulnerable and exposed. Now when I think of idyllic escapes, walking along a beach is the last place to come to mind.

For my sister, the sound of an emergency alert on her phone sets her heart racing. And I get that. Because, while ultimately we were all OK, five years later, I still feel the stress of those 38 minutes.

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