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Hawaii reinstates 'attack warning' siren to prepare for possible North Korean missile

The “attack warning” siren hasn’t been tested in Hawaii since the Cold War.

by Heidi Chang /

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HONOLULU — Ted Tsukiyama still recalls how quickly life changed when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

“It was quite traumatic and totally unexpected,” said the 96-year-old World War II veteran, who was a student at the University of Hawaii at the time. “That morning the radio called for all University ROTC [Reserved Officers’ Training Corps] to report to the university armory. We were issued rifles to help guard the city and our regiment was converted into the Hawaii Territorial Guard.”

 Ted Tsukiyama served in World War II with the U.S. Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team before being reassigned to the Military Intelligence Service in India and Burma. Courtesy of Ted Tsukiyama

Sirens were installed around the city after the war started, Tsukiyama added, and there would be periodic tests. “I remember hearing the sirens going off. The radio would give us a warning: ‘This is only a test, don’t get alarmed,’” said Tsukiyama, who was born and raised in Hawaii.

Along with other Nisei [second-generation Japanese Americans], he joined the Varsity Victory Volunteers and the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, then was reassigned to the Military Intelligence Service in India and Burma. (One of the characters in the new movie, “Go For Broke,” is based on Tsukiyama’s life and he also made a cameo appearance in the film.)

These days, Tsukiyama says he isn’t surprised the air raid warning sirens will be wailing again come December — only this time, it's due to the rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea and because Hawaii has long been a military defense outpost.

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“I suppose that’s necessary as a precaution, but I don’t think North Korea is gonna attack,” Tsukiyama said. “They’d be foolish to threaten South Korea or Japan or the United States.”

But concerns are growing. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has repeatedly threatened to drop a bomb over the Pacific Ocean, and President Donald Trump has threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” and designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

So what is the probability of a North Korean missile striking Hawaii? According to Vern Miyagi, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA), which is part of the state’s Department of Defense, the chances North Korea will act are unlikely, but making sure Hawaii is prepared is still vital.

“If North Korea launches against us or our allies, the retaliation would be complete and they would defeat North Korea’s ambition to continue its regime. The regime would probably end,” explained Miyagi. He notes Hawaii is protected under the U.S. Pacific Command’s defensive umbrella, the anti-ballistic missile system, and it is home to the Pacific Command, the military’s headquarters for the Asia-Pacific region.

 Vern Miyagi, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, says that while an attack from North Korea is unlikely, Hawaii still must be prepared. Heidi Chang / NBC News

But, Miyagi points out, “Hawaii is a likely target because we’re closer to North Korea than most of the continental United States… As we track the news and see tests, both missile launches and nuclear tests, it’s the elephant in the room. We can’t ignore it. People of Hawaii need to know what Hawaii is doing in preparation for this.”

Because of the North Korean threat, the Aloha State is currently ramping up efforts to educate its 1.4 million residents, as well as its visitors, on how to prepare for a nuclear attack.

Hawaii has become one of the first states in the nation to initiate a nuclear preparedness campaign, and starting Dec. 1, it will reinstate the “attack warning” siren, which it hasn’t tested since the Cold War. The siren will follow the monthly “attention alert” signal, which warns people of an incoming tsunami or hurricane.

The state has also been holding community meetings and broadcasting public service announcements on TV and the radio to prepare people for a possible attack.

Most importantly, officials are encouraging people to have a plan. Gone are the days of “duck and cover” during the Cold War; today, the mantra is “shelter in place,” preferably in a concrete structure. Officials also recommend having enough food and water to survive for 48 hours, and being prepared with supplies to last up to 14 days.

If North Korea launches a missile, officials estimate it could take about 20 minutes to reach Hawaii. It would take about five minutes for the U.S. to determine where it’s going, which would leave about 12 to 15 minutes to warn the public.

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“Each individual, each family should have a plan to be resilient, so they can take care of themselves, while we focus on getting the critical infrastructure, the harbors, the water, the roads, all back to some sort of normalcy,” said Miyagi, who’s also a retired U.S. Army Major General and has extensive experience in domestic and international humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

Officials are also advising everyone to stay updated on what’s going on in North Korea, get more knowledgeable about nuclear affects, and learn what they can do to prepare for a nuclear strike.

Based on a nuclear threat now, officials predict 80 to 90 percent of the population could survive.

“I would be remiss in not doing my responsibility, or our responsibility at Emergency Management to not consider this, and list this as one of the hazards and prepare for it. That’s our job here, to prepare for hazards. If we save one life, it’s worth it,” Miyagi said. “If we save lives, that’s the whole purpose of our existence, and we’re very passionate about what we do.”

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