For the first time in more than three decades, an ominous warning siren blared across Hawaii earlier this month — an alarm that one day could mean a nuclear missile is about to hit.
The siren, a Cold War relic brought back in the wake of new threats from North Korea, is the centerpiece of the most wide-ranging campaign in the U.S. to prepare for a nuclear strike. Over the last few months, state officials have aired TV ads warning Hawaiians to “get inside, stay inside” if an attack is imminent. They’ve also held meetings across the islands to educate residents on the danger.
Especially after North Korea’s latest missile test, some experts believe California and the Bay Area — one of the closest U.S. metro areas to Pyongyang after Honolulu — should follow Hawaii’s example. But so far the Golden State’s reaction has been starkly different.
“Hawaii feels like it’s on the front lines because it’s so close to North Korea, but these weapons have a pretty long reach,” said Alex Wellerstein, a professor who studies nuclear weapons at New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology. In practical terms, he said, “Hawaii isn’t a whole lot closer than San Francisco.”
Indeed, Hawaii is about 4,600 miles from North Korea, compared to 5,450 miles for the City by the Bay.
Hawaii’s alarm was tested Dec. 1 following the regular tsunami siren and will be tested on the first business day of every month. It’s a wailing caterwaul, impossible to ignore, and sounds different from the single-tone tsunami warning. For many locals and tourists, the foreboding sound evoked an earlier era when American schoolchildren were taught to hide under their desks in case the Soviet Union launched a nuclear strike.