January 13, 2018, was a day most Hawaiians are not likely to forget. Just after 8 a.m. that Saturday morning, scores of residents in the state awoke to a jarring emergency alert on their phones: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
We know now the alert was a false alarm, and details continue to emerge regarding what led to it. But during the 38 terrifying minutes leading up to the all-clear, many Hawaii residents believed any moment could be their last as they scrambled for shelter.
The same was true for the state’s senior living providers. At Hawaii Kai in Honolulu, Holiday Retirement’s largest community in the U.S. at 375 units, the day started like any other for the provider, but quickly turned into a harrowing and impromptu lesson on crisis management and emergency preparedness.
Winter Park, Florida-based Holiday Retirement is the nation’s largest independent living provider, and one of the nation’s largest providers of senior living overall with 262 retirement communities.
Senior Housing News spoke with Michael Weider, general manager of Hawaii Kai; and Meli Chung, the community’s administrator of assisted living, to hear their stories of what occurred during those 38 minutes, and how the missile scare has shaped their view of emergency preparedness in the days and weeks that followed.
SHN: What did you experience that day?
Michael Weider: I was fast asleep on Saturday at 8:07 in the morning, and I was awoken by the alert on my phone. Out here, on a monthly basis, we have sirens which are tested to make sure they’re working. Those would usually alert us of an incoming tsunami. So, we’re used to hearing an emergency alert, like if there’s been an earthquake somewhere and we are in danger of a tsunami.
Opening my eyes, the first thing I thought was weather, then I thought tsunami. I grabbed my phone, and I don’t think anything can prepare you to read the words ‘ballistic missile is inbound to Hawaii, please seek shelter. This is not a drill.’
It was so to the point. I felt like somebody took a moment to write that, and that they had to convey it to make us understand it was the real deal. I popped out of bed, and I immediately looked out the window like I was waiting for something to fall out of the sky.
I didn’t know how much time I had or what I should do. I grew up in south Florida, and so you stay away from windows and doors in hurricanes. But a ballistic missile is kind of in a category of its own.
At 8:09 a.m., two minutes later, I got a phone call from my community. My assistant general manager was on duty and she said, ‘OK, what do we do?’ And that was it. And then there was some silence. I think I was still processing what was happening. I could tell by the tone of her voice she was very nervous…and I could tell she was panicked. And she was doing the best she could to keep it together for the residents that were there.
We have upwards of 300 residents on site, and I talked about how to keep them safe and where to put them. The amazing piece out of all this is that our residents were very calm. Perhaps age does that, age and experience. They were very peaceful about doing what we asked them to do to protect themselves.
We have three buildings here at the community, and we evacuated the largest building into a garden level, which is sort of subterranean. It had the fewest windows and doors, and it felt like a safe place to evacuate them to. The state has encouraged people to stay indoors and to stay away from windows, and to find an interior location and to evacuate in place. So that’s what we did.
It was the longest 38 minutes. For those that were here in the building, yes, but also anybody that was here on the island at the time, because I guess at any moment, something could have fallen out of the sky, and that could have been the end of life here.
I think there’s a lot of things that have been said since then, and there’s been a lot of research and articles, about what to do and what not to do and where to be and not to be, but we weren’t prepared for that. There are no fallout shelters in Hawaii. No one ever talks about this. And I think the current political climate has allowed us to believe this is possible.
Thankfully, it was not a missile crisis, it was a scare, and it’s gotten everyone here…to think about what we would do if this were to really happen.
Meli Chung: Like Michael, I was home, asleep, when I got the message. Shortly thereafter, my staff called me, which they are supposed to do in the event of an emergency like that.
Basically, my directive was to evacuate the residents into the hallways and treat it like a hurricane. According to protocol, you are supposed to have the residents away from the windows and doors. That’s basically what we do in the event something like that happens.
The staff were pretty trained and aware of the protocols and the procedures. Most of our residents were evacuated into a safe area. And they basically just waited for word from me. As soon as we got the second message that it was a false alarm, I called the community back and gave the all-clear.
It was a scary event, but I think overall, as a community we came together and we did what we had to do for our residents.
One of the things I did when I returned was have a training with the staff as well as the residents. So, we all have some preparedness as to what to do in the event of a situation like that. That was very helpful. Michael did the same with his residents in independent living, as well.
How did the residents react?
Weider: On a day like that, one thing that gets you through is humor. Our residents have such a wonderful sense of humor. Working with seniors and being in senior living, it’s the one lesson I am taught every day working with them, to maintain calmness and maintain your sense of humor.
We did have someone who was very vocal that morning. One individual approached one of our chefs and said, I’d like to give you a hug because I may never see you again. And the chef…reassured this individual, and the individual said [in response], don’t worry about it, at the end of the day, it’s a free cremation, so there’s nothing to worry about.
I don’t know that I’ve learned to be that charismatic when life throws you a curveball. I’m learning, but the residents here certainly teach us that every day, and that day was no exception.
Chung: For our staff here in assisted living, I heard stories that all the residents were sitting in the hallways with the staff, and everyone was just holding hands and hugging. I can just picture it in my mind. It was just very touching.
What is Holiday Retirement doing to prepare in the wake of the missile scare? Can you even prepare for something as seemingly apocalyptic and sudden as a nuclear missile?
Weider: Saying that is kind of like saying, how do you prepare for an earthquake? You really don’t have a lot of time and you don’t know what to expect. In this case, because the message we received said the words, this is not a drill, it was underlined this was happening. You had to do something. You had to reassure people somehow.
Even with the guidance we’ve received from the Hawaii Department of Defense and what they’ve published regarding the preparedness for an event like that, it reads very much like a set of instructions for hurricane preparedness. It’s just a guideline. You don’t know where something like that would hit, how it would affect us, how many people would perish.
I think the underlying theme is to keep people safe. Your gut instinct will tell you, keep people inside, keep people away from windows, keep people away from doors. Bunker down and just keep people safe.
Chung: For residents, what we try to do is go over all the emergency procedures with them when they’re first admitted so that they’re aware of what to do in the event something like that happens.
They each get a handbook that has all that information on there. And also, I truly believe in education. One of the most important things is to really train and educate the staff and keep the residents informed on a regular basis. I think that will help alleviate a lot of the fears and concerns. It’s just better to be prepared and to be aware of what to do in the event of an emergency.
Do you have back-up generators? A stockpile of food, water, and medicine?
Weider: We definitely do. In fact, there’s been an ongoing dialogue since this happened about what we do and don’t have. We have generators on the property that are natural gas operated. Within 90 seconds of a power outage, we’d have power to all the common areas and elevators, which is very important. They’re very large units and self-contained. They’re maintenanced on a regular basis and tested on a weekly basis to make sure they’re functioning properly.
I have two full-sized commercial kitchens and I have enough food in my refrigerators that, if we didn’t take another single delivery from today, we would certainly be able to survive, let’s say, a [nuclear] fallout period [of about two weeks]. No one would go hungry.
Our community is the largest community with Holiday Retirement, so we serve more than 1200 meals a day. Some of those are special needs or have diabetic restrictions. If we had to stop right now and ration for 14 days…we would not have any trouble doing that. I’m close to having 100 five-gallon water containers in the building, so water wouldn’t be an issue, as well.
That’s not saying that, through the course of any natural disaster, you wouldn’t be dealing with anything you can’t foresee, but we would be as prepared as possible.
Chung: And with medications, we always have a 30-day supply, or more, on hand for each resident.
When faced with such a dire situation, how do you keep employees calm, or even from leaving to be with their families?
Chung: When I had training with the staff members here after the incident, that’s actually one of the things that came up. A lot of us have families. It’s our instinct to try to get to our children, our family members, and just leave. But because the schools here do emergency training and evacuations once or twice a year, what I told my staff was, if something like this were to happen, and your children were in school, the best thing to do is leave them there. And for them to take care of themselves, which is shelter in place.
And that would be the safest thing to do for us, too: the staff members would stay here, take precautions and keep our residents safe, as well.
This interview was edited for length and clarity
Written by Tim Regan