The Fish Story

How Life In Hawaii All Ends … Or Not; Barnegat Bay Prefers a Low Road-Salt Diet

By JAY MANN | Jan 17, 2018

How can I not wax unpoetic over what just took place in my old stomping grounds of Hawaii? I have been bombarded by startling information on what was, initially, something of a distantly laughable event, namely, the 50th state’s all-too-real pseudo end of the world.

At 8:06 a.m., Jan. 13, island residents were told over assorted media outlets: Emergency Alert: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Yes, it was all in caps, adding a certain typographical stress to the apparent approaching crisis – a capitalized look we now know to look for in end-times messaging. I see a mere “Ballistic missile threat. Seek shelter immediately” … not in caps? I’m casually finishing my NutriBullet drink first.

In Hawaii, word of imminent nuclear annihilation went out in various forms, most conspicuously via cellphone alerts. Now, there’s an app to have. “Is that my Doomsday App going off? Oh, crap!”

How did this happen!? A primary Peter Principle dictates: if anything can go wrong, it will. What’s more, it will go wrong at the worst possible time. With North Korea on the verge of who-knows-what, the possibility of an incoming nuclear missile in Hawaii is currently as real as radioactive trade wind rains.

For over half an hour, Armageddon alarms rang throughout Hawaii. Cellphone warnings turned into word-of-mouth pass-ons, likely embellished a bit by each passer-on.

“Leilani go tell me there’s an asteroid gonna hit us!”

“Oh, Kimo, get it straight! It’s a nuclear weapon about to hit us … not an asteroid!”

“What, I supposed to feel better now?”

As the alarm spread, stand-in-place shock dominated the initial-reaction realm. Both tourists and residents huddled together on sidewalks in an odd comfort-in-numbers resolve. Many folks would later explain they stood around because they were openly baffled about where, exactly, one takes shelter from a many-megaton nuclear warhead zeroed in on a tiny cluster of islands.

Students at the University of Hawaii went studiously seeking air raid shelters. Rushing around the campus, they eventually came upon a door with a weathered “Civil Defense Shelter” sign on it. It was fully padlocked – you know, to keep the Cold War look and feel locked within for future generations to open … and mock. Who’s mocking now?

News videos also captured images of people running around, often in random directions. Now there’s a worthy course of action I can fully relate to, especially the concept of running wildly in random directions.

Sidebar: While it surely wasn’t funny at the time, I saw one chuckle-worthy report of a fellow in a touristy group trying to calm others by saying, “This missile is coming from North Korea, so it probably won’t even get here … or it won’t blow up when it hits.” Hey, when grabbing at incoming straws, things like that can sound highly reassuring. Personally, I’d still opt to run wildly in random directions.

Finally, after 38 eternal minutes of terror – and with an odd air of “Oops, our bad” – recant alerts began being issued. Commander David Benham, a spokesman for US Pacific Command, offered a publicly broadcast statement to stand down. “USPACOM has detected no ballistic missile threat to Hawaii. Earlier message was sent in error. State of Hawaii will send out a correction message as soon as possible."

ASAP, eh? You mean after someone coaxes government officials out of their cozy, VIP bomb shelters?

“You can come out now, folks.”

“We’re not leaving until we get official word from, well, us – and we’re not going anywhere without, uh, official word. Someone pass me another green bag of that survival lomi lomi salmon.”

It would eventually be explained that the whole mind-numbing nuclear scare was a mere button-pressing error by a Hawaii emergency services worker, who surely never expected his 15 minutes of fame to come via 38 minutes of terrifying all Hawaii. It should be added that government officials, at the time, were in the process of dusting off the state’s onetime nuclear attack warning system, thanks to Kim Jong-un and his recent dialogue with President Trump over whose “button” is bigger. And I thought the Cold War was weird.

As the Washington Post reported, “Around 8:05 a.m., the Hawaii emergency employee initiated the internal test, according to a timeline released by the state. From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: ‘Test missile alert’ and ‘Missile alert.’ He was supposed to choose the former; as much of the world now knows, he chose the latter, an initiation of a real-life missile alert.”

A Fox News headline would soften things a bit, reporting, “Hawaii’s false missile threat: Worker ‘feels terrible’ after pushing the wrong button.”

It might just be me – knowing if there’s a wrong button to press, I’ll press it every time – you’d think the kiss-your-asses-good-bye button would be bright red, have a little dome of unbreakable glass over it with an angry scorpion inside … and hulked over by a huge sign reading, “You better know what the hell you’re doing if you press this button, bruddha!” Nope. It was a small and unassuming button, cuddled next to a “this is just a test” sister button. For the worker, it was eeny or meeny – meeny being the “feel terrible” choice.

Said worker has been, euphemistically, “reassigned” – likely to a place where the buttons don’t shine.

In retrospect, one of the most dangerous ramifications of the alert had to do with motorists on fast-moving highways, like Hawaii’s most crowded road, the H-1 Freeway. Many drivers dutifully obeyed the follow-up instructions within the incoming-missile advisory: “… If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building or lay on the floor.”

I got word from an Army acquaintance that the islands’ military bases went on full red alert, not knowing any more about the imminent attack than the public sector.

Just so you’ll know, the highest state of oh-s***ness in military readiness terms is called DEFCON 1. That’s 1 out of 5. Per military terminology, DEFCON 1 is: “Maximum readiness; all forces ready for combat; nuclear war imminent or likely.” Hint: You never want to hear things are at DEFCON 1 – just ask many Hawaiians.

AS I HEARD IT: Dawn Holmes Bevan, a Surf City resident visiting Hawaii, was at the impact zone for the erroneous alert. Sitting on the 14th floor of her hotel, she was about to “enjoy a day in paradise,” readying for a run – to be followed by heading out for a seven-day Hawaiian islands cruise.

Sipping coffee, Dawn was startled by an unusually loud alarm on her cellphone across the room. As she reached the phone, she could clearly see the terrifying text alert.

“I read it and began to tremble. I couldn’t think. I went to the phone and called the front desk of the hotel! The woman answered, and I asked her, ‘What did this alert mean?’ Did they have a procedure for shelter?” The clerk was clueless to the alert.

“I was numb anyway … so I made a decision to stay in my room. As I looked out my patio doors, I saw people running, yet a plane in the sky; sailboats in the water, along with paddleboarders. My guess is they didn’t have a phone with an alert, nor were they near any social media,” said Dawn.

From her room, she called her brother, who was in the same hotel.

“I called him and he was in the lobby. His words were calm, as I’m sure he didn’t want to frighten me more than I was. He said it was chaos downstairs; people on their phones, crying and frantic. That confirmed my thoughts. I was staying in my room. Whether 14th floor or ground, a ballistic missile was going to kill me either way,” said Dawn. “I felt so scared, helpless; obviously very alone. … Terrified is the word, to the point my mind and body was numb.”

She then made one of the toughest calls of her life.

“I called my daughter. I tried not to upset her. My husband, her dad, died three years ago … That’s all I could think of … my children.”

After a seeming eternity, every second waiting for an end-times flash, word arrived that the alert just might not be real.

Dawn recalled, “It took 38 minutes for the Hawaiian officials to correct the text. Meanwhile, I had turned on CNN and reports were coming in as to it being a false report. I cried and prayed.”

Opting to skip her morning run, Dawn still managed to keep her date with the cruise ship, likely boarding with a still-quivering step.

The following day, from her cruise, she messaged, “I believe, yesterday morning, fear beat me, but I’m grateful to be back at it today. A moment I’ll never forget.”

She also offered a PS: “Whale watching now … amazing!”

Former Island resident and SRHS graduate Sean Spaar, who now resides on Oahu, messaged me, “It was pretty surreal. Very frustrating. Surprising that we were going to die from something so stupid. News was useless. Stressful.”

A college friend, Hawaii resident Kathy Cosgrove Harrowby, told me, “It is a blessing that it was a mistake, but I am goddamn pissed off at the major incompetency! Sitting in the tiny bathroom for 30 minutes with the family and the dog waiting for the bomb to hit was beyond horrifying. No tears, no panic, just a sort of resigned acceptance with a pounding heart.”

Another Maui friend, Viki Marugg, reported, “More than half of my remaining family, and a multitude of friends live (in Hawaii). The relief was so great when the ‘all clear’ sounded, a huge burst of delight-in-life broke out everywhere. The humor began flying ... but beneath it all one can clearly hear deep anger.”

One of the more reality-shaking comments I received was from a Susan Corrado, who wrote, “My two sons live there and were on the phone with me at the time of the alert saying their final goodbyes. It was horrifying.”

Insane postscript: Just today (Tuesday), Japanese national broadcaster NHK issued an alert incorrectly claiming that North Korea had launched a ballistic missile. The message, received by phone users equipped with the NHK app, read, “NHK news alert. North Korea likely to have launched missile. The government J alert: evacuate inside the building or underground.”

Although it was quickly corrected by the radio station, I’m betting someone else will soon be sent to where buttons don’t shine.

By the by, it has yet to be determined who has the bigger “button,” us or them.

TOO MUCH SALT!: Contending with the recent ice and snow has left an insane amount of road salt in place, waiting to be rinsed into the bay. That much NaCl surely means the bays will be over-spiced, so to speak.

While there has been little site-specific research on the impact of road salts on Barnegat Bay, it’s evident that bay water, in general, can have its balanced chemistry rocked by a sudden influx of sodium chloride.

Ponder this: More than 22 million tons of salt is now scattered on the roads of the U.S. annually. Weirdly put, that’s about 137 pounds of salt for every American, even those on a low-salt diet.

How deleterious is said salt? In Canada, road salt has officially been categorized as a toxin, leading to a more judicious use of the stuff, i.e. until vehicles go sliding off roadways.

Harm-wise, studies have proven the impact of road salt on freshwater habitats. Even small amounts of road salt can ruin life for fish and wildlife in lakes and streams. What’s more, salt intrusion can have devastating impacts on biota in freshwater wetlands and vernal ponds. Hard hit are chemical-sensitive amphibians, already in a horrible way due to habitat alteration and destruction. Locally, springtime freshwater ponds are the founts of life for many rare or endangered species. Salt up those ponds and survival gets seriously iffy for life within.

While the impacts of transient road salt on nearshore marine biota have not been researched to the nth degree, that’s not to suggest it doesn’t do damage. I’ll venture a guess that winter flounder, a highly distressed fishery (despite strict management), suffer from salt overload, especially during times of winter/spring spawning, when water chemistry must be just right.

So, what might help de-salt an over-spiced bay? Radical tides, often storm-related, jump to mind.

Acute tidal flushing actions can quickly introduce chemically well-balanced ocean water into much of the Barnegat Bay system, though the backwaters are always a stretch for ocean influxes to reach.

Spring is the prime time for such wind-based bay flushes. It’s also the time when incoming water ushers in the ocean-borne eggs and larvae of many local marine species. To be sure, this year we’ll need some serious bay flushes to make things chemically right in the bay. Summer will tell.

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