Palm Trees, Postcards, and… Nuclear Fall-out?

Hawaii Sign reads Caution: beware of falling coconuts and frondsThis week I thought I’d take a break from writing about fiction for one of my periodic posts about living in Paradise. Which, honestly, is a fiction of another kind. Yep, if you’ve read my posts about the lava flow that rained ash upon us and nearly swallowed a neighboring town, or even the ones about the preponderance of vermin and annoying feral pigs, you’ve probably figured out by now that Hawaii Island isn’t all palm trees and postcards. And if you watched the news at all this week, you can probably guess where I’m heading today…

Most Saturdays, we get up at 6 a.m. (an unreasonable hour for the weekend) so we can drive into Hilo for an early yoga class. However, last Friday night something (dog hair? pollen? alien spores?) crawled up both my nostrils and made itself at home. Still mouth-breathing well after midnight, I reached over and turned off my alarm. No way was yoga happening in the morning.

Screenshot of a cell phone displaying a Hawaii ballistic missile emergency alertInstead, I got up feeling somewhat less than refreshed, fed the dogs, and made breakfast. My husband and I were luxuriating over our coffee, talking politics and enjoying an unusually leisurely morning, when shortly after 8 a.m. (8:07 is my best guess) both of our cell phones began having grand mal seizures, jumping across the dining table. That’s when we received the now infamous text messages informing us we were about to die.

I am now about to divide my female readers (and perhaps embarrass the males with TMI). My husband and I were stunned, and sputtered a bit about what we should do. My response: “I know this sounds crazy, but I’m going to put on a bra.” (Remember, we were still in our jammies.) I’m aware some of you ladies probably believe the only good thing about nuclear annihilation would be not having to wear a bra anymore. However, I have always found my undergarments to be empowering and reassuring. If I have to climb out of rubble, I’d rather be wearing a bra to do it. And socks. Socks would be good.

Last month, Hawaii Civil Defense added a nuclear attack warning to our monthly tsunami alert siren tests. (Remember what I said about Paradise?) We didn’t hear the siren Saturday, but the alert assured us this was not a drill. And the sirens don’t always work, even during our monthly tests. Siren or not, we’ve been informed that we’ll have approximately twelve to fifteen minutes from the warning until missile impact. Remember that number.

After throwing on some clothes, I turned on the radio. NPR was airing its usual programs. Local music stations were playing their usual shitty pop. (Sorry, but it’s the truth. There’s wonderful traditional Hawaiian music, but most of the crap on the radio on Big Island sounds like someone recorded it with an eighties Casio keyboard.) Being The Googler, I turned on the internet and grabbed my iPad. (I should add, it takes a long couple of minutes for our satellite internet to get going.) There’s nothing.

With no additional information and a still-ticking clock, what do you do? My husband and I texted our mothers. Imagine trying to compose that text, knowing full well as you try to type it with trembling hands that this is for their benefit, not yours. At this point, there is nothing you can do for your own benefit. There is nothing you can do to change the outcome. Whether you, and everyone around you, lives or dies is entirely out of your hands.

Around this time, I noticed my phone was down to 7%, and I never let my phone run down overnight. So, do I charge the device despite possibly missing a call or text because we might need a slightly charged phone in the aftermath? Or assume it will last until the end comes? I chose the former, and this is when I discovered one of our bedroom outlets—the most convenient one—doesn’t work.

Scrambling for a functioning outlet, I saw I’d missed a call from friends in Hilo. (We secretly think it’s because we’re older, and our Millennial buddies trusted us to know more.) I’m not sure if it’s ironic or appropriate, but we’d actually talked about the possibility of a nuclear strike when we had dinner with this couple earlier in the week. My husband had said, it’s the kind of thing where you either want to be very close or very far away when it happens. We’d joked about making room for them to shelter in our lava tube. Yes, we have a lava tube, but the cat is the only one who will fit in it. And would you really want to be in a lava tube during impact?

Of course, even if we’d had a real fallout shelter, it wouldn’t have helped the friend who called. We were already nearly five minutes into our twelve to fifteen minute window. They’d never have made it to our house. Also—did I mention?—we don’t have a fallout shelter. And neither does anyone else. So when I finally got through (phone lines were hinky with the call volume), we spent twenty seconds confirming we could hear each other and that neither of us had good news.

Because there are no fallout shelters, residents are advised to “shelter in place,” putting as much reinforced concrete as possible between us and the blast. I can’t speak for Kona side, where there are more condos and hotels, but in my experience on the east side of the island most of the residences are single wall, wood construction. Many, including ours, are not even entirely enclosed. Those of you thinking of retreating to your basements or cellars, think again. As someone on Oahu said in an interview, you ever try digging a hole in lava? It took us the better part of a month just to get a septic tank installed.

So, basically, not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re screwed. You have twelve to fifteen minutes to contemplate your impending incineration. How long has it taken you to read this far?

Did we think we were going to die? You’ve probably seen all over social media the last-minute texts people sent to relatives. There are reports of individuals driving like maniacs or leaving their cars behind, and videos of students fleeing, and sheltering children in storm drains. I don’t know, but I’d take an educated guess that a lot of people thought our chances were not good. (And by extension, everyone else’s chances, but at a certain point your brain hits a consequences wall.)

For me, it’s complicated. I didn’t get worked up about politics and what got us to this place (although you can bet I did afterwards). I didn’t think about personal regrets (and thankfully still haven’t). I did do the just-in-case-we-die text. And I cried. Not boo-hoo tears, but involuntary look, my eyes are leaking because we’re all going to die tears when I embraced my husband.

The two faces of my Schrodinger's Cat mugSo yeah, I thought we were going to die. And yet, that’s not precisely right. It’s difficult to separate what you thought during a particular experience from your reflections about it later, but I do recall thinking about Schrödinger’s cat. (My novelty mug popped into my head.) Many of you have heard of this thought experiment, the quantum mechanics extreme example that a possibly irradiated cat in a box is both dead and alive until you open that box to see the outcome. I couldn’t help feeling that we were that cat, that somehow this had already happened and there were two worlds already in existence. In one of these worlds, we continued to live. In one of these worlds, we were dead. The question was, which world was our world? What would the box reveal in twelve to fifteen minutes?

Of course, like any exalted state (that’s a joke), existential calm doesn’t last forever. My husband and I had gathered on the floor with cushions and our pile of dogs. Suddenly antsy to know (coincidentally, around projected impact time), I tried the radio again (nothing) and the internet (still nothing). Finally, my husband saw Representative Tulsi Gabbard’s tweet. She opened the box for us. Over the next few minutes, our other federal elected officials confirmed the news, and we began a texting and retweeting frenzy. Is it any wonder I’m such a fan of our Hawaiian Representatives and Senators? Or that Twitter is my favorite social media platform. 😉

Screenshot of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's tweet confirming Jan 13 missile alert is falseQuick timeline review: Approximately twelve to fifteen minutes (that phrase is getting a workout) after the phone alert, social media posts advised it was a mistake. And the official Emergency Alert follow-up phone text saying “my bad”? By my count, that came forty-one minutes after being told to seek shelter from an incoming ballistic missile, that this was not a drill. During which time, we could have been annihilated three times over.

So there it is. Life in Paradise. Which, for good or ill, is no different from life anywhere else. I’m told we did occupy the news cycle for a while, which in today’s crazy climate is saying something. (Here’s one of my favorite riffs on it from The Late Show—it’s only hilarious because it’s true.) My advice, having lived through a thankfully Faux-pocalypse: if your phone starts dancing at an unreasonable hour, turn it off. Or be like our friend’s teenaged son, and sleep through it. 😉