How the 2018 Hawaii missile scare changed my life

Baby no longer in my arms, I step closer to the hole. I cannot see the ground below. I hold the hem of my skirt and put a flip-flopped foot onto a cinder block jutting out of the concrete wall and start to descend. The smell of damp earth and rotting wood grows stronger with each step down.

One two three four five six.

I can hear my baby babbling in my cousin-in-law’s arms in the room I just lowered myself from. I whimper.

I do not want to bring her down here.

I won’t bring her down here.

A week ago I would have brought her down here.

A week ago when all the phones in the vacation rental started blaring I’d assumed it was an Amber Alert. Child abduction on Kauai? Where are they going to go on this two-lane highway?

I picked up my phone and stared at the screen. The message was not about an old Chevy pickup with a child inside. It was about a missile heading for Hawaii. Seek shelter immediately. This is not a drill.

Was this a joke?

Baby in my arms, the rest of the family out on the deck watching the enormous waves crash against the lava rock shore, I didn’t want to wait to find out. I walked past the wall of floor to ceiling windows and onto the deck, face pale, baby nestled in my arms. I interrupted sips of coffee and sighs about the beauty of clear blue sky to tell them about the alert. I looked up at the sky wondering if we would see it coming. If somehow a missile would create a contrail in reverse to warn us of its path.

Everyone got up to check phones, check TVs, disbelief the initial response. I wanted to be comforted by this disbelief but I wasn’t. Even if it was most likely untrue there was a chance it was true, especially in the current political (insane) climate.

I went back inside to get ready. Get ready? How does one get ready for a ballistic missile attack? Baby in my arms, baby in my arms, baby in my arms. Holding her close, I whispered I love you in her tiny ear over and over.

In our guest room our luggage vomited its contents onto the floor: clothes, bathing suits, baby books. I fished my wallet out of my bag and put my ID in my pocket. I pulled the comforter off the bed and wrapped my baby in the downy warmth. She wasn’t cold; it was 70 degrees outside but somehow it seemed like a good thing to do. I had to protect her (from shrapnel? Radiation? Sonic boom?) and it was the only way I could think of how to do it.

I tried to get everyone into the windowless garage. My sister-in-law told everyone to put their shoes on. My husband shuffled bottles of water, a bunch of bananas, boxes of food into the garage.

I wondered if I should move the ping-pong table against a wall or move away from the rack of snorkeling gear? What happens when a ballistic missile hits a place? Do we simply evaporate or is it like a big earthquake?

I’d let my daughter out of the blanket to crawl on the garage floor but scooped her up again with these thoughts. How long do we have? My sister-in-law said she wasn’t ready, she was too young to die and wanted more time. I texted my mom and sisters in California about what was going on. I hope it’s not true, I wrote. I love you, I wrote.

What do you think about when you may be blown up? About all the other people in the world that go through this daily? About what you will leave behind? About what matters most? I stopped my husband from his stocking up and said, “If this is it, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I love you so much.” We held our baby between us and kissed gently and smiled one of those not quite joyous but not quite defeated smiles.

Such a mix of gratitude and fear. Love and sadness. Disbelief and knowing.

I sat down and held my baby close as realizations flashed across my brain. My catering business doesn’t matter. Publishing my book doesn’t matter. Leaving a legacy doesn’t matter, whatever the hell that means. Not that those things are bad, they just don’t matter as much as I once thought. What matters? Love. Family. Community. If we didn’t blow up, I wanted to work on our farm, become more self-sufficient and interdependent with our community. Be with my husband and my child. Learn from them about love and curiosity, teach my daughter about empathy and opening our hearts instead of shutting them down to the point where missiles are even a choice.

My husband, baby, and sister-in-law sat in the garage and waited as minutes ticked by. The other family searched Fox news and CNN in the house. Nothing. My husband searched for news on his phone. He found a Twitter post saying it was a fluke. My sister texted me updates about her search. False alarm, she said.

False alarm.


Inhale the dankness of this hole in the ground a week later. This is where my new extended family huddled under their house when they got the alert. Underground. Baby in arms and a nine-year-old sobbing that all the things she loved were OUT THERE, above ground, in the world.

I do not want to bring my baby down here. I will not bring my baby down here or a place like here.
Not this time. Hopefully never.

I climb out after a few minutes of sweeping a flashlight from corner to corner and shivering at the thought. I hold my baby in my arms again and don’t have to think about what is important. I know what is important as her heart still beats against mine and the birds still sing outside in the world.

Post Script: A year after the scare I still hold those minutes of unknowing with gratitude. My husband and I work on our farm, work to better our community resilience and interdependence. Our daughter is growing and thriving. And we make a point to stop working and have fun with friends and family because we know that you never really know when the end may come for any of us. It’s not about giving up, it’s about living fully.

Originally published on

Jenny Goff is a sailor, farmer, chef, and writer living on an island north of Seattle, WA.

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