On Jan. 13, Doug Kennedy and Jason Seward gather together 12 students and climb onto a bus. Though there are a few still sluggish with the remnants of sleep, excitement is palpable. Today they will climb Mt. Haleakalā, a 10,023 ft. volcano that is no longer active, but still just as awe-inspiring.
It is the tenth day of the REC 348: Maui Sea to Sky: Principles of Adventure Travel course, and their fourth day of travel on the island. Kennedy is a professor of Recreation and Leisure Studies and Chair of the Recreation and Leisure Studies Department. Seward is the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs. This is a trip they have hosted for over a decade, but they still look forward to it with the same enthusiasm as the first time.
As the bus rumbles along, they catch snatches of the scenery flashing by. Glimpses of the island, dense foliage made vibrant by the bright sunlight filtering through. Theirs is a brief look into the ancient land.
The buzz and chirp of phones quickly brings everyone back to the present. The same message flashes across every screen: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Though all manner of exciting events and strange occurrences had taken place in earlier years of the course, this year the students abroad would be involved in something more dangerous: a false missile alert that shocked Hawaii in early January.
At 8:05 a.m., an alert was sent out to phones that warned residents and visitors of an incoming missile. The alert was repeated on media outlets, along with a secondary message that advised people to seek shelter: “If you are indoors, stay indoors. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building or lay on the floor.”
Kennedy and Seward directed the bus back to their condominium before quickly ushering everyone inside. They began calling the school and other officials, trying to figure out if the alert was real. Students were told to call their families and provide them with updates.
“The alert went off on your phone, like an Amber Alert or tornado-type warning, and we went back to our condominium. We have just left for the morning, so we turned right back,” Kennedy said. “The students got together and sort of stayed together while we tried to assessed the situation and called the school. It was a bit nerve-wracking for a little while.”
“You also have to understand, there’s nothing you can really do to impact it, that you have a larger group that you need to be concerned about. So you have to apply any kind of emergency management situation the way you respond. One of the biggest things is you remain calm,” Seward explained.
The experience was described as “surreal” and “surprisingly calming.”
“It was still a really weird experience, because you know, you don’t feel it happening to you. Stuff happens all over the world but it doesn’t happen to you, so it’s not the same thing,” said Natalia Pentecost, a freshman and one of the students on the trip. “But when it’s happening to you, it’s a whole other feeling.”
“We had no idea if this missile was going to be there in 30 seconds or 30 minutes, we had no idea,” Kennedy said.
“Nothing I could do or say could have any outcome,” Seward added.
An alert cancellation and assurances of safety were sent out 38 minutes later, to the relief of everyone on the islands.
Both instructors praised the students’ reactions and stressed how well they handled the ordeal.
“We didn’t freak out or anything,” said Pentecost. “Everybody was being positive though, like ‘well at least we’re dying in paradise,’” she joked. “It brought us closer together.”
“The students were tremendous… They let it all go, so I think it was a good experience to show a lot of the students that sometimes there’s things that are outside of your control and you just have to roll with the punches. It was a strange half-hour, it really was. But they did a great job, they were really resilient and they rebounded well. I was really proud of them,” said Kennedy.
“They were awesome, the students were great. Everyone was calm, no one was freaking out,” said Seward. He went on to mention how it “put to the forefront” the reality of unrest in the world. “This is a very real thing for [the Hawaiians], and while it impacted our trip, it also, again, showed that broader picture.”
Seward expressed hope that students could one day look back and appreciate the brief experience. “You look back and whenever I’ve been in a travel situation or the outdoors, some of my fondest memories are those unexpected type things. So this is just one of those memories of their time in Hawaii,” he said.
That hope was realized just a few days ago: Pentecost revealed that the students are vying for commemorative t-shirts that read “I survived the 2018 Hawaiian missile strike.”
“I’m definitely buying one,” she said.
Despite the brief excitement, everyone involved insisted that the false alert was only a small part of an amazing experience and successful trip.
When asked about the most memorable part, Pentecost said her most vivid memory was traveling on the road to Hana.
“It was this one-way, sketchy road on the side of the mountains… it was extremely scary for a lot of us, but for some reason my adrenaline was running and we had the music playing, we had the windows down, and I felt so relaxed and peaceful,” she said.
Kennedy said two events came to mind: snorkeling off the coast of a lava field and helping farmers grow taro.
“We hike out to the lava field to the coast to snorkel. In the last twelve months, we’ve been the only group that’s been allowed to be there. So the students are able to see a part of the world that they’ll be the only twelve in the world to see it. So they get to go out and snorkel an untouched reef, basically,” said Kennedy. The lava field and reef are part of Hawaii’s Natural Area Reserves System (NARS), a statewide program designed to protect and preserve some of the most unique ecosystems on the islands.
On a different day, the students helped native Hawaiians on their farm. “They get down in the mud growing taro… they spend the day really understanding the culture and what culture means to the native Hawaiians,” he added.
Seward said that the best part was to see how students reacted to the trip.
“For me, I always learn something new from the islands. And sometimes that materializes itself in what others take away from it. At the end we have a reflection circle right before we leave for the airport,” he said. “It’s always so impactful to see when for students, that lightbulb goes on.”
Anyone interested in the 2018-2019 Maui trip is encouraged to contact either Jason Seward at firstname.lastname@example.org or Doug Kennedy at email@example.com.