If the missiles were coming, what would you do?

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Pamela Nikitas is a travel agent. She’s sent people all over the world. So what would she do if it suddenly looked like the world was ending?

How about Andrew Humphrey? He’s a meteorologist on WDIV-TV (Channel 4), and what if the forecast called for missiles raining down on Michigan?

In Hawaii last Saturday morning, a misplaced click on a computer screen left the populace believing that ballistic missiles were headed for the islands. “Seek immediate shelter,” said the alert on hundreds of thousands of cellphones. “This is not a drill.”

It was 38 minutes before a second message let people know the issue was human error, not an inhumane act. Thirty-eight minutes for people to give one more hug, read one more Bible passage, catch one more wave. Only three days later, Japan’s public broadcaster sent erroneous warnings of a North Korean attack, though a correction followed in five minutes.

The Michigan State Police captain who oversees Michigan’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division is sympathetic to his colleagues in Hawaii, and said the system here has more fail-safes and significantly less likelihood of producing a false alarm.

But what if your phone lit up with news that we were all about to be lit up? What would you do?

Nikitas, the owner of Joan Anderson Travel in the Buhl Building downtown, said she would be more practical than panicked.

“I don’t think I would take the information as valid,” she said. “With my personality, I have to verify. I’d assume there would be air raid sirens if it was real, and not just a notice on your phone.”

Her thought when she heard of the warning in Hawaii was about vacations, not evacuations: “Do we have any clients there?”

Humphrey would also be logical, he said, but only after he was sentimental. He would telephone his mother, who lives out of town, and “then I’d gather my loved ones and head for an underground parking garage in Detroit or the Detroit salt mine.”

The salt mine was an unusually deep dive into a common vein: Nearly everyone in an informal survey said they would gather with family to await catastrophe.

Some said they had been pondering the question on their own since Saturday — all because an employee freshly clocked in at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency selected “Missile alert” on a drop-down menu instead of “Test missile alert.”

The employee was asked to confirm his selection, but only once, and with a display that did not point out the magnitude of “Missile alert.”

“It’s important to note,” said Capt. Chris Kelenske of the Michigan State Police, “that Hawaii and Guam are in a much different situation than we are here in Michigan.”

North Korea, the most likely nuclear aggressor, sits less than 5,000 miles from Honolulu. The time from launch to landfall would be about 20 minutes.

Hawaii had fewer checks and balances than Michigan, Kelenske said, but that’s possibly because it has such a compressed time to react.

In Michigan, a statewide alert would come from the state police operations center in Dimondale, a suburb southwest of Lansing. It would be sent by an operations lieutenant from a stand-alone computer in the same room where dispatchers work — but only after being authorized by the governor, lieutenant governor or director of the state police.

To begin the process, the computer “has drop-down boxes for the federal codes you enter,” Kelenske said. The second step is to compose a message to be read on every cellphone in the state. Then come three successive confirmation screens, a key difference from the process in Hawaii.

An alert, then, would almost certainly be legitimate — which legitimizes the anticipated response from Starlett Simmons of Eastpointe.

“Panic,” said Simmons, the owner of Five Star Cake Co. in Roseville. “It’s such a crazy situation. ... I’d probably go grab my 16-year-old daughter and lay on top of her or something.”

Steve Zieman of Rochester Hills, a professional magician, said if the alarms sounded and he found himself out of tricks? He has no illusions: “I’d want to be with the family. Hug the kids.”

The government used to mark some buildings as fallout shelters, tagging them with ominous black-and-yellow signs, but officials stopped keeping track of them in 1994. Often, the shelters were theaters.

“That’s where I tell people they should be when there’s a bad storm,” said Ruth Daniels of Farmington Hills, though she has a vested interest: She’s a managing partner of the Maple Theatre in Bloomfield Township.

“What it takes me back to is ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Deep Impact,’ ” she said, a pair of disaster movies from 1998 involving comets rocketing toward Earth. In “Deep Impact,” she recalled, some people went to the beach, knowing they would drown but preferring to spend their last moments in a beautiful place.

While Daniels would opt for her basement, Tony Michaels, CEO of the Parade Co., isn’t sure. He knows he would call his 93-year-old mother in Grosse Pointe, and then his grown-up kids, “but why would you go in your basement? If things are falling on your house, don’t you want to be somewhere else?”

No, said Kelenske. For most people, the basement is the best spot, particularly if it’s been outfitted with water, a hand-crank radio and other appropriate supplies.

As for the best form of notification, it’s still the cellphone, even after Hawaii.

“The problem is, people can deactivate their alerts,” he said. “But it’s very important that they don’t.”

A cellphone blast might not save someone from a nuclear blast, but it could clear the way for a last call or a last kiss. Before there’s nothing left, at least that’s something.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn