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What If The Missile Had Been Coming To You?

What happened to Hawaii today was horrible. Those folks had 38 minutes of believing that a nuclear missile was headed toward them before the state said it was a false alarm. I can scarcely imagine the terror.

Let’s try to, though. Let me ask you all, though, as a thought experiment: what if you had received that official warning at 8:07 am your time, this morning (Saturday). What would you have done?

We were just waking up around my house, so all of us were here. I suppose Julie and I would have run into the bathroom, shut the door, and decided quickly how to tell the children. We would have awakened those still asleep, brought them to the living room, told them the news, and then … what?

I would have phoned my mother to tell her I loved her, “in case something happens.” There would not have been time to get to her. After that, it’s hard to imagine that we would have done anything else but sat together in the living room praying, and trying to stay calm. I would have done my best to lead us all in prayer, asking God to protect us from the danger, asking forgiveness for our sins, thanking Him for his mercies, asking each other forgiveness, and preparing our souls as best we could to meet him.

If I’m honest, I wouldn’t have run water in the bathtub, or done any disaster preparation. Nothing in that moment would have been more important than preparing to die. Right or wrong, that’s how I think things would have gone at our house this morning.

How about at your place? What would you have done? And if you live in Hawaii, what did you do?

UPDATE: Folks, I really don’t want to know what you think about Donald Trump with regard to this incident. Please stay focused on the personal question I pose in this post. I’m not going to post broader political speculation.

91 Comments (Open | Close)

91 Comments To "What If The Missile Had Been Coming To You?"

#1 Comment By Nancy E. Head On January 14, 2018 @ 4:16 pm

My husband chuckled over the reference to cowering under a desk. He (at age 63 now, having grown up in New England) did the drill.

I’m just a tad younger but grew up in a place that was supposedly a target on the Soviet’s radar screen because of our rail center.

We never did the drill.

Our administrators apparently didn’t want to alarm us if it all came true some day.

#2 Comment By Tom On January 14, 2018 @ 4:24 pm

It’s amazing how real and authentic people get when faced with imminent death. I think we would all act the same. I know I would. One of the most poignant examples is the people that survived the EF5 Tornado in Joplin in the freezer of a convenient store that was completely demolished on the outside. You can look the video up on Youtube. They were all certain they were going to die but they all survived. Complete strangers are telling each other I love you. And there’s always one person praying. It doesn’t get more authentic than that. Our shared common humanity.

#3 Comment By Lee Penn On January 14, 2018 @ 4:26 pm

When I heard the alert, I would have begun to pray (something simple, like the Jesus Prayer, or the Divine Mercy Chaplet), and also would have tried to confirm the alert by radio or over the Net. Then, I would have attempted (depending on my location) to duck and cover.

I would probably not have tried to reach people by phone, because I remember the drills from the 1960s, with their warnings not to use the phone except for official business or to report an emergency. After the 1989 Quake in the Bay Area, it was a matter of luck to get a dial tone, and during the alert yesterday, people in the alert area could not get through. That’s what I would expect to occur anytime during a civil defense alert.

I have had practice with emergencies, because I have had to decide (for myself or for a friend I was caring for) whether a given situation was a heart attack, a stroke, or a false alarm. One gets (somewhat) accustomed to such fire drills.

#4 Comment By T.S.Gay On January 14, 2018 @ 4:37 pm

I know I’m different. But I expected at least several comments that would be similar to mine. I know from experience….in athletics when trauma occurred to another…when I was hurt….as a youngster flying an air ambulance in a war…as a teacher for 35 years and you know drama of different levels of intensity happens….when tragedy like accidents occurred …for some reason I get intensely focused on other people involved around me. And just instinctively know how to react in a normal tone( very important) and give limited instructions. Small tasks are for the good of the situation, but also can help all involved keep some wits about them. I have experience on intercom but not really phone. I would bet if this was continental US, there would be cell tower problems, and that would cause some further stress. I’m not a good prayer unless you consider being still, listening, and knowing. In those thirty five years as a teacher I know some peers recognized this in me because in fights, accidents, and even death I was specifically called upon. I guess I should give specific stories, but I’ve never shared them even with my wife if she wasn’t present.
At our house there is a wood burner in the basement, outside camera view, we’re with one son’s entire family, we monitor responders, we are rural with water, yes there is some freeze dried food(its better than canned stuff). We hang out there together often in the winter. That’s the best we can do in tragedy like this. I would have to invite two local Amish neighbors, and one English family. That’s all there is here.

#5 Comment By William M. On January 14, 2018 @ 4:55 pm

Me, I would have let everybody else in the house know then headed for the bathroom (or somewhere near the center of the building with no external windows) and Ducked and Covered, waiting for the blast.

Since I live in New Zealand, this question is strictly academic. Even if, for some reason, we did get nuked, it would be one of the Big Three cities (Auckland, Wellington and, Christchurch), so I wouldn’t be directly affected.

From a civil defense standpoint, having these drills is really important as it allows the authorities to examine the public response and gauge the deficiencies in training and preparation. Considering that those things were woefully inadequate (in the States) during the height of the Cold War, today they would probably be non-existent.

For those who are interested (like me) there is plenty of information on the Internet. But remember, the first step in survival, is wanting to survive.

#6 Comment By John On January 14, 2018 @ 5:15 pm

I would like to think that I would continue to do whatever I was doing at the time as an act of defiance as there is no need to let the shooters govern or determine the course of my shortened life, maybe steal another sip from the mixed drink I was having at the time but in all likelihood I would have run to the car toll to get out of Dodge, hopeless as that would be.

#7 Comment By VikingLS On January 14, 2018 @ 5:16 pm

I’d have checked Facebook and the news. (I am in an Air Force town and a lot of my friends are in the service.)

If it was real, we’re too close to the base to hope to survive. So I guess we’d say our prayers, go to the basement and fill up the carboys with water just in case, put cartoons on the laptop for my daughter, and then break into the 43 year old homemade wins some friends gave us we’d been saving.

I think most people are going to give you some variation of that.

#8 Comment By bergm138 On January 14, 2018 @ 5:17 pm

For the record, CDC has a set of recommendations for this. In general stay inside, get as much material between you and the contaminated material as possible, and stay there for at least a couple days. If this is a Hiroshima-level bomb, as most of NK’s bombs are, you only need to be a mile or two away from ground zero, and you only need to stay inside for a day or two in order to make it out okay.

#9 Comment By Youknowho On January 14, 2018 @ 5:52 pm

What would I have done?

Prayed, and try to drive as close as possible to the impact site so as to be killed instantly.

#10 Comment By AB On January 14, 2018 @ 6:05 pm

People have written of drawing nuclear blast rings around Detroit. Here is a website showing the effect of the latest Korean nuclear weapon on Detroit. Note that it is a paltry 150 kilotons and many Cold War bombs were in the megatons. There is still plenty of North Korean (and Iranian) development to watch as they progress.


And since the warning was for Honolulu:


It will be a genuine Dies Irae, Day of Wrath. As has been sung since the Middle Ages: Dies Irae, Dies Illa / Solvet Saeculum in Favilla. Day of Wrath, Day of Ire / Day the World Dissolves in Fire. That, of course, refers to Judgement Day, to which we will all be summoned whether we believe in it or not. In the meantime, Man periodically contrives a Day of Wrath for himself.


#11 Comment By Susan in Seattle On January 14, 2018 @ 6:32 pm

We have family in Honolulu and were relieved to hear it was a false alarm. Their report (received today, the 14th) was simple: ‘Yesterday morning was exciting and unsettling. Fortunately, we didn’t have time to get really scared.’

#12 Comment By John On January 14, 2018 @ 7:16 pm

I’d hope to go out like John Jacob Astor on the deck of the Titanic: wearing my best, with a cocktail in hand, like a gentleman.

#13 Comment By education realist On January 14, 2018 @ 7:45 pm

Maybe it’s because I live near mountains and water, but if that warning came on, I’d turn on the tv and try to verify if it was real, which would happen almost immediately, while grabbing food and technology (unplugged) and water. My brother, who I share a house with, would already be at work near the mountains, so I’d text him that I had food and to get the hell out of dodge. I’d call my mother and stepdad next to be sure they were doing the same thing. I’d then head for the hills, hoping I had a better reaction time than everyone else, and being thankful there are at least five roads to the hills. Then the only question would be which side of the hills it hit. And while I was heading for the hills I’d call my son and my father, touch base with my sisters, and so on, hoping that they’d erred on the short side with time.

So I’d do what I could to protect myself from the immediate blast. Not sure how big the EMP impat would be. From what I understand, the effect on cars is not exactly what’s presented in movies.

Surviving a nuclear missile is a whole lot different from surviving a nuclear onslaught. I’d want to fight for a shot at living. It might not work, but it would make the 30 minutes more eventful and give me a sense of agency, flawed or not.

#14 Comment By Dave On January 14, 2018 @ 8:49 pm

Pray, tell my family I love them. Go to my only child, hold her and pray some more.
And play some music that always gives me solace.

#15 Comment By Mary On January 14, 2018 @ 8:58 pm

I would do just as we are doing now: sipping a glass of wine, thanking Jesus for His promises and His conclusion of of all things including those we do not yet understand.

#16 Comment By evw On January 14, 2018 @ 9:05 pm

An additional not so fun fact: there is no alarm in NYC. At least the residents of Hawaii will have get a heads up.

#17 Comment By EH Pilgrim On January 14, 2018 @ 9:41 pm

My son said he’d plant a tree. That was his first answer anyway….

#18 Comment By Albuquerque Blue On January 14, 2018 @ 10:08 pm

How would I have reacted? Probably would have kissed my wife, pet my cats, send as many messages to my loved ones as possible. Would probably turn on my webcam to document it to try to help us be remembered. Not a man of faith, don’t see myself praying. I can understand the urge though.

#19 Comment By Sam M On January 14, 2018 @ 10:30 pm


How long does it take a missile out get to Hawaii from NK? After how many minutes do you think you are OK.

Either way, if I live in the suburbs, I drive away from the city, no? If I’m 10 miles from city center to start with, and I have an hour, haul ass. If you are 60-70 miles away, and you are smart and drive upwind of the city, you are ok, right? The Big Island on Hawaii is bigger than some people think. Like 93 miles across.

#20 Comment By Acilius On January 14, 2018 @ 11:10 pm

I have no idea what I would actually do. I would hope I would take my cue from Jacqueline Kennedy. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, she was briefed on the plans to evacuate the president’s family in case a Soviet strike on Washington were imminent. Her response was to look at the briefer and say, “If that happens, the children and I will be standing hand-in-hand on the South Lawn.”

#21 Comment By Carl On January 15, 2018 @ 1:54 am

I was awake in Kihei, Maui yesterday when the alert sounded on my phone: 8:07 am. The loud alert signal woke my wife and after I read the alert, I showed it to her. We looked at each other and decided trying to find a safer place wasn’t realistic. We weren’t going to be able to get to any significantly safer place in 20-30 minutes.

I tweeted this at 8:14:

“Ok Twitter, just got this (emergency alert) on my phone. I’m on Maui. It’s been good….”

As you can maybe sense, I wasn’t totally convinced the alert was real, but my friends should know what’s going on.

We were staying (& still are) at a beach cabana with a surfer crowd. Hostel-like. We heard no one say anything. No one was running around panicked or alarmed. Complete quiet, like they didn’t know. Maybe it was the crowd (Ok, it was the crowd), But seriously, there was only calm morning breezes and birds singing. If it was real, was there any better place to be immolated? It was calming.

Next Tweet at 8:22:

“No sirens, no confirmation. Hopefully a mistake?”

My wife and I spent most of our time talking about whether Honolulu would be targeted, how far that was from Kihei, were there other islands between us and Honolulu, tsunami possibilities, blast waves, etc…. Despite our need to talk it out, never did we really believe in our hearts that it was real. If it WAS real, we just assumed it was launched from North Korea. Not much time would elapse. In a way, I rationalized, it was better to not have the extra time to worry longer. I knew the North Koreans probably didn’t have reentry technology yet, so that was also comforting.

We had this conversation while she searched Facebook and I searched Twitter. We were not totally surprised when the false alarm emergency alert came to our phones at 8:45. A bit more relieved than I would care to admit, I tweeted:

“Civil defense says it’s a mistake. Whew.”

So, there’s an exciting start to a day! But we’re on Maui, and the beaches were packed by 10:30 when we unloaded our cooler and beach chairs. The day marches on!

In retrospect, I never felt truly scared because I felt it was a mistake. Nervous? Maybe a little, but mostly I was convinced it was erroneous. And I guess that answers the question of how I’d react in this scenario. But just this scenario. Helped to be in it with loved one who felt the same, both logically and emotionally. Being in Hawaii didn’t hurt either.

#22 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 15, 2018 @ 2:40 am

No satisfaction in being right that the technological imperative isn’t sufficient guidance for human affairs.

#23 Comment By Jeremy On January 15, 2018 @ 7:12 am

I have no idea how I would have reacted or what I would have done. Being of the millennial set, the only nuclear ‘preparation’ I am aware of is duck-and-cover, which I know for a fact was the government appeasing the masses by giving them the false hope that in that situation they had some vague sense of control. Like you and so many others, Mr. Dreher, I would most likely have called loved ones and prepared to die.

What I am thinking about is what life would have been like in the 39th minute when the false alarm text message came through. For all of those who were, in fact, preparing for their lives to end, they would have been given, in a sense, a new lease on life. If they had spent those 38 minutes enjoying repenting their failures, this is their Christmas Carol moment. If they spent those 38 minutes thinking that their life had been wasted or had no meaning, this is their It’s a Wonderful Life moment.

I do wonder, though, how many took this truly seriously and, further, in our vapid times how many would have spent more time in prayer with family than getting on social media trying to get all the likes they could before World War 3.

#24 Comment By Philly guy On January 15, 2018 @ 8:33 am

38 minutes is just about long enough to listen to Miles Davis Kind of Blue one more time and would finish the bottle of Laphroaig.

#25 Comment By Craig On January 15, 2018 @ 8:44 am

Yes, I would have prepared for death. I suppose that the Damocles sword of nuclear death reminds us of the sudden and inescapable threat of death, but that’s a reality of our demise anyway: few of us have the luxury of knowing the when and where of our passing from mortal life to eternal life. Settle all accounts. Every day with Lord and people.

#26 Comment By Dan Green On January 15, 2018 @ 9:42 am

Until we actually get whacked, I pray everyday the Navy Seals have a plan. Conventional warfare is obsolete except among Muslims killing each other as routine.

#27 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On January 15, 2018 @ 10:05 am

One little quibble regarding Pompeii being mentioned in some comment. While its tragedy is indeed a popular theme in the art, historically it wasn’t remotely as tragic. 85-90% of the population successfully escaped and relocated to other Roman cities and towns. Hence its example doesn’t exactly suit the situation discussed.

#28 Comment By FL Transplant On January 15, 2018 @ 11:34 am

What would I have done? Practical things. Moved food/water into the basement, set up the basement to spend a week or two (grabbing candles/lighters, blankets/bedding, etc).

An attack from NK would be a very limited one, and not one with hundreds to thousands of warheads like one from China or Russia would be. If you survived the initial blast/thermal pulse continued survival would be very dependent on your further actions.

But then again, I have childhood memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, lived on SAC bases during the Cold War, and spent a few years sitting in the underground command centers with a set of keys to launch a squadron of 50 Minutemen III ICBMs as my job; going to work meant riding the elevator down for a 24 hour shift to wage global thermonuclear war. When years of your life were spent dealing with the reality of nuclear war the unthinkable isn’t.

#29 Comment By Joan from Michigan On January 15, 2018 @ 1:50 pm

The town where I currently live does not seem very likely to be a target, but if it were, if I knew for certain that the whole place was gonna get wiped from the face of the map, I think what I would do first is steal and eat my housemates’ chocolate ice cream because, for once in my life, I would not need to be concerned about the consequences (i. e., my allergies and the need to maintain peaceable relations in the household).

Then, in the crash after the sugar rush, I would go curl up in bed and cry and feel sorry for myself.

#30 Comment By Philly guy On January 15, 2018 @ 2:22 pm

Sorry if this is a rerun but, Kind of Blue Miles Davis is under 40 minutes and whatever is left in the current Laphroaig bottle.

#31 Comment By RS Rogers On January 15, 2018 @ 3:36 pm

The incident raises the question of whether direct contact to citizens is wise for this sort of alert. What’s the point? Are the good people of Lahaina going to band together, Goonies-like, and launch come kind of vigilante citizen-scientist anti-missile device to protect Hawaii?

Whereas the Cold War era civil defense and emergency alert systems added only a couple of minutes to the timeline of alerting the public but had more potential check-points for correcting erroroneous alerts before the entire citizenry is needlessly panicked. When my dad was getting his start in radio in the early 1970s, he was on the air when an Emergency Broadcast System alert came through. This was eastern Iowa, and dad’s station was the designated “hub” of the local EBS system. The government-issue teletype machine clattered out a code word – in dad’s telling, “HATEFULNESS HATEFULNESS HATEFULNESS” – which he and a colleague decoded against the official code book to find was the day’s signal for total nuclear war. Stations were supposed to cease broadcasting and await a presidential address announcing the end of the world. And hub stations were to confirm the alert down the line to other stations in their area. Instead of immediately announcing the end of the world and the immanent arrival of Soviet nukes, my dad and his colleagues at Cedar Rapids’ CBS affiliate began contacting other major stations in Chicago, St. Louis, and Minneapolis and the network HQ in New York. Those stations were holding off on activating the EBS pending another signal from Washington. The network’s news reporters in DC were able to confirm quickly that the president was not about to announce a nuclear attack, that the Pentagon was not tracking a Soviet launch, and that the alert must have been a mistake. Some time later, the EBS teletype clacked out the day’s code for “disregard previous alert” and the brief war scare was over. Some stations around the country instantly obeyed the first order and interrupted programming, but most Americans – including those in eastern Iowa – never knew about the false alarm until after the government had confirmed that it was a mistake.

Seconds can make the difference between life and death in a weather emergency, or an earthquake or volcanic eruption, but in a nuclear attack, there’s really nothing to be gained by shaving a few seconds off the public alert process. The costs of a false alarm are much higher than any conceivable benefits of distributing a true alert a couple of minutes sooner.

#32 Comment By Richard On January 15, 2018 @ 4:45 pm

For some practical suggestions: “If a Missile Alert Sounds, Prepare to Live”

First, you have to understand that the odds are overwhelming that you’ll survive an initial blast. Nuclear weapons are devastating, but it’s a Hollywood myth that any individual strike will vaporize an entire American city, much less the suburbs and countryside. You can go to sites like nuclearsecrecy.com to see the blast radius of direct nuclear strikes at various yields. The bottom line, even if a nuclear weapon as big as the largest North Korea has ever tested were to impact squarely on Manhattan, the vast majority of New Yorkers would survive the initial blast.


#33 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On January 15, 2018 @ 6:46 pm

By the way, North Korean nuclear missiles are few and not exactly technologically advanced. So there’s a decent chance that the air defense will be able to deal with them. Assuming they don’t habitually fall into the Pacific genociding crabs, langoustes and clams.

#34 Comment By Mr. Jones On January 15, 2018 @ 7:13 pm

I’m at a place in my life that I, like that man I read about over the weekend, would have grabbed a Mai-Tai, headed out toward the beach, looked off into the distance, and sang “Come, Armageddon! Come, Armageddon! Come!”

#35 Comment By Erin Manning On January 15, 2018 @ 8:47 pm

I’m late to the thread, as usual. I always like to think I’d be all serene, praying peacefully. In reality I’d be in “tornado mode” trying to get family members, cats, bottled water and emergency ham radios into the interior bathroom. I would also remember that graphic I saw years ago that showed that a direct hit on Dallas would probably not reach us, and then I’d have to apologize for God for briefly hoping that Dallas and not Fort Worth was the target (even though it’s quite logical to assume that it would be), because such a hope is callous and unkind and unworthy of a Christian. But human.

In the meantime my kids would be all over social media proving the thing was a hoax, hopefully before I’d gotten too far with the cat carriers and bottled water. But at least I wouldn’t be in line at the store trying to buy bread, eggs, and milk, which is the other way people around here respond to emergencies.

#36 Comment By Floridan On January 15, 2018 @ 9:39 pm

I would have hopped in the car and headed south away from Washington D.C. I can pray and drive.

Given what D.C. traffic is like normally, how far do you think you’d get in 30 minutes or so?

I know that during the evacuation of South Florida prior to Hurrican Irma every road out of the area was a parking lot — and people had a lot more warning than would come from a missle attack.

#37 Comment By Leslie Fain On January 16, 2018 @ 9:56 am

This is a great story about how a Catholic Hawaiian family got through it…

A whiskey in one hand and a rosary in the other…

#38 Comment By David Smith On January 16, 2018 @ 10:13 am

YOU CANNOT SURVIVE A NUCLEAR WAR. Even if you managed to get through the attack in your (very deep)underground bunker, there would be nothing left to come back to: no grocery stores, no power, no utilities, no law enforcement–nothing.

Also, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A LIMITED NUCLEAR WAR. Talk about surviving the initial strike is nonsense. Once the first missile lands, hundreds of others will follow. There will be nothing left. To believe otherwise is a dangerous myth.

#39 Comment By JonF On January 16, 2018 @ 1:14 pm


A nuclear war is one thing; a single strike by a nuclear warhead is something else. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, outside the zone(s) where people in the open suffered fatal blast, thermal pulse and prompt radiation effects quite a lot of people survived.

Re: Once the first missile lands, hundreds of others will follow.

If you’re talking about a war with Russia or maybe China, this is quite likely true*. If you’re talking about terrorists or the loon in Pyongyang, then no.

* I doubt we’d have a war with France, the UK, India, Israel or Pakistan.

#40 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On January 16, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

Once the first missile lands, hundreds of others will follow.

North Korea has hardly a dozen.

#41 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On January 16, 2018 @ 9:52 pm

The most probable scenario of a war involving the use of nuclear weapons at this period of time is India against China with the likely involvment of Pakistan as a Chinese proxy. My bet will still be on India’s victory (if victory is an appropriate word in such a conflict), though.