False ballistic missile threat puts life in perspective

Alaskans touch base via cell phone after warning to seek shelter in Hawaii

The Caldentey family snorkel in Hawaii on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Photo by Paul Caldentey /for The Cordova Times
The Caldentey family snorkel in Hawaii on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Photo by Paul Caldentey /for The Cordova Times

The sun begins to rise between two palm trees. Waves roll over one another, gently reaching the shore, as the pink sky reflects in the warm neighborhood ponds.

Iris O’Brien-Caldentey and her husband were enjoying the calm morning on the Big Island of Hawaii, Saturday, Jan. 13.

“NEIGHBOR, NEIGHBOR,” a voice yelled, piercing through the air.

They went next door to see what the commotion was.

O’Brien-Caldentey’s neighbor shared an emergency alert notification he received on his phone. It read: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

O’Brien-Caldentey and her husband went back inside to frantically search the news for information.

“We turned on CNN, nothing, Googled, nothing … it was a little unnerving not knowing anything,” she said.

They tried to remain realistic and logical amidst panic and fear.

“Our thoughts were, we’re on vacation in Hawaii, loving life and if this is the way that we were meant to go out then it’s time to go swim in the ocean,” O’Brien-Caldentey said.

Meanwhile, Chenega resident LaVon Gall was vacationing in Oahu.

“Of course, I get nauseous and I’m crying cause you think you’re waiting to die pretty much,” she said as she recalls the nearly 40-minute wait before a false alarm notification was sent.

She noted that the Waikiki beach strip, usually a location filled with tourists, was desolate. This led Gall to believe that others were taking the missile threat seriously and sought shelter.

“In Alaska at home, we live in Chenega … we worry about tidal waves and earthquakes … we have a plan, but for a missile …” Gall said trailing off.

The threat was dismissed at 8:45 a.m., Pacific time. News of the mistake quickly spread throughout different media outlets.

Gall and O’Brien-Caldentey are lifelong friends who grew up in Cordova. Although not vacationing together, they kept in contact through the ordeal and were both unsure of what to do if the missile threat were real.

O’Brien-Caldentey said this served as a reminder to know local shelters, even when on vacation.

“Knowing the state of our national security right now with the ballistic missile threats … it was alarming,” she said. “When you work for national security you can’t afford to make those mistakes.”

In the aftermath of the incident, Gall said she was looking forward to sunny days on the beach with her family.

“It just really puts things into perspective how short or precious … life is,” she said. “It’s definitely an eye opener on the potential of what could happen. It makes me want to get back home … almost,” Gall said, now excited about the remainder of her vacation.

Cordova Disaster Management Trainer Joanie Behrends offers information on shelter-in-place. Read her latest Cordova Prepared column for The Cordova Times here.

Red Cross also offers a searchable map to help you locate shelter options near you.

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Emily Mesner is a staff reporter and photographer for The Cordova Times. Reach her at emesner@thecordovatimes.com. Emily graduated from Central Michigan University, earning a degree in photojournalism with a cultural competency certificate. She first visited Alaska in 2016, working as a media intern for the National Park Service in Kotzebue and Denali National Park and Preserve, and has been coming back ever since. To see more photos, follow @thecordovatimes and @emilymesnerphoto on Instagram.