Hey, Texplainer: Could Texans receive a false alarm about a nuclear missile launch?

No, because the state has no warning system like Hawaii does.

Emily Albracht for The Texas Tribune

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Hey, Texplainer: Does Texas have statewide precautions in place should we get threatened with a ballistic missile? And could Texans ever receive false alerts like Hawaiians did Saturday?

Thousands of Hawaii residents and visitors said they feared for their lives Saturday after receiving a cell phone emergency alert warning of an incoming ballistic missile. The alert — which read "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL” — was later found to be a false alarm.

Officials first blamed the faulty notification on an employee who pushed the “wrong button,” though The Washington Post later reported that the employee was working with a drop-down menu on a computer program and chose the wrong item.

Could Texans receive the same kind of false alarm? Experts say no.

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According to Michael Mosser, a lecturer in the International Relations and Global Governance program at the University of Texas at Austin, “it’s definitely an apples-to-oranges comparison between Hawaii and Texas.”

Unlike most of the continental United States, Hawaii was identified as a likely strike target by a North Korean propaganda photo from 2013. Due to its proximity to countries like North Korea, in 2016 Hawaii built a statewide version of the the federal early warning system

Texas, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same kind of statewide civil defense procedure to protect against the threat of an incoming missile.

“In Texas, defending against ballistic missiles from North Korea is not high on our list of priorities because there are limited budgets,” Mosser said.

“This could only have happened in Hawaii because of the system they have in place that we don’t really have,” he added. 

The closest system Texas has in place is the State Operations Center, which is at the Department of Public Safety headquarters in Austin. The center monitors “all hazards” in Texas, said DPS spokesman Tom Vinger.

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According to its website, the agency is charged with “monitoring threats, making notification of threats and providing information on emergency incidents to local, state, and federal officials, and coordinating state emergency assistance to local governments that have experienced an emergency situation that local response resources are inadequate to deal with.”

However, if a ballistic missile were headed in Texas’ direction, the federal Emergency Alert System would be tasked with issuing a warning, Vinger said. The federal system requires broadcasters to give the president the ability to communicate with the American public during national emergencies. State and local authorities may also use the system to deliver emergency information, such as AMBER alerts and weather information.

Should a missile be launched at Texas, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security advises people to quickly find shelter, preferably a building made of brick or concrete, to go as far below ground as possible, listen for official information and follow the instructions provided by emergency personnel.

However, Mosser said there’s little evidence to suggest Texas is a primary target of a North Korean missile.

“We’re not completely off the radar screen from North Korea’s point of view,” Mosser said. “The entire continental U.S. is in range of the most recent North Korea missile, so sure, Texas is a possible target, but there’s very little evidence to suggest Texas is a primary target in any way.”

The bottom line: Texans couldn’t receive a false nuclear missile alert because the state has no warning system like Hawaii does. If a missile were headed toward Texas, the federal government would have primary responsibility for warning, and then aiding, the state.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.