HONOLULU — A message warning Hawaii residents to seek shelter due to the imminent threat of a ballistic missile on Saturday morning was a false alarm, officials said.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” read the alert to people's phones, which immediately caused a panic among residents and on social media.
The message also blared across local television stations.
However, a spokesperson for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, told BuzzFeed News the incident was a false alarm.
“There is no missile threat,” Lt. Commander Joe Nawrocki told BuzzFeed News. “We're trying to figure out where this came from or how this started. There is absolutely no incoming ballistic missile threat to Hawaii right now.”
“My phone's been blowing up,” he added.
Nawrocki referred requests for information to Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency, where a representative also told BuzzFeed News the message was a false alarm.
“We're in a process of sending another message to cancel the initial message. It was part of a drill that was going on,” the spokesperson said.
The agency later tweeted, “NO missile threat to Hawaii.”
US Pacific Command spokesman Commander David Benham later told reporters in a statement, “USPACOM has detected no ballistic missile threat to Hawaii. Earlier message was sent in error.”
Some 40 minutes after the original message was sent, a second alert was pushed to people's phones, declaring a false alarm.
Hawaii has been on edge in recent months amid an escalating war of words between the US and North Korea.
Late last year, officials restarted statewide testing of Cold War-era sirens meant to warn of an impending nuclear attack.
The incorrect alert was sent as part of a drill by the Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for emergency alerts and a subset of the Department of Defense.
Richard Rapoza, an EMA public information officer, said the agency was still “trying to find where the error occurred” but believed it was a technical issue, and not a result of hacking.
“We don’t have any real clear answers,” he told BuzzFeed News. “We’re working on a number of hypotheses.”
Regular staff at the operations center, located at its Diamond Head Crater headquarters, were running a drill when the alert was sent. Rapoza said testing the broadcast system (i.e. sending an emergency alert) is not part of a standard drill.
“We don’t know why the alert went out as part of the test. It’s a regular test we do and normally the alert does not go out as part of that test. But this time it did so we’re trying to find out what went wrong and resolve that,” said Rapoza.
The agency currently believes it was a technical or coding issue that may have caused the incorrect message.
“Right now it appears to be a technical issue. But we can’t be sure. We’re working right now on the assumption it was a technical issue,” he said, noting the agency expected more information on what happened later Saturday.
But he did clarify that there was no suspicion and “no evidence of any kind” of government systems being hacked.
“We have absolutely no indication it was any kind of hacking, that is not something we believe,” he said.
Hawaii's two Democrat senators both called for an investigation into Saturday's mishap.
“What happened today is totally inexcusable,” tweeted Sen. Brian Schatz. “The whole state was terrified. There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process.”
Schatz said the false alarm was a result of human error.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, the state's junior senator, wrote: “At a time of heightened tensions, we need to make sure all information released to the community is accurate. We need to get to the bottom of what happened and make sure it never happens again.”
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard used Twitter on Saturday to inform residents the message was a false alarm.
Gabbard told CNN the message was sent to every single person in Hawaii.
“People got this message on their phones and they thought 15 minutes, 'We’ve got 15 minutes before me and my family could be dead,” she said.
Gabbard, a Democrat, blamed President Donald Trump, who was at his Florida golf club on Saturday, for what she said was a failure to take the threat of North Korea seriously.
“The reality is that every American needs to understand that if you had gone through what the people of Hawaii just went through, what my family and so many families in Hawaii just went through, you would be angry just like I am,” she said.
Michelle Broder Van Dyke reported from Honolulu. David Mack reported from New York City. Additional reporting by Amber Jamieson, Julia Reinstein, and Hayes Brown.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates or follow BuzzFeed News on Twitter.