Cellphones and social media went nuts early Tuesday after a routine monthly test message for tsunami warnings from the National Weather Service for Florida, the U.S. East Coast and parts of the Caribbean got recirculated as an official alert.
The test went out about 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and was picked up by a private company that distributes alerts, said Rob Molleda, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Miami office. The company then mistakenly recirculated the test as an official warning.
“We don’t know how it happened or where it originated,” he said. “The push notification did not come from the National Weather Service, so I can’t explain to you how it happened. That’s still something we’re trying to figure out.”
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The alert is the second national warning about potential danger striking the U.S. in a month. On Jan. 13, an emergency alert about a pending nuclear attack spread panic across Hawaii after a worker misunderstood a drill and issued an official warning. Problems in the alert system allowed it to remain in place for nearly 40 minutes.
Moments after the tsunami alert, social media lit up.
AccuWeather and others passed it along, with warnings spreading from Rhode Island to Texas to Florida, where a mini tsunami, measuring in inches, raised groundwater level in Fort Lauderdale and the Big Bend earlier last month after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit Alaska.
On Tuesday afternoon, AccuWeather blamed the mistake on coding by the National Weather Service.
“While the words “TEST” were in the header, the actual codes read by computers used coding for [a] real warning, indicating it was a real warning,” AccuWeather spokesman Justin Roberti wrote in an email. “The NWS warning also later appeared on other sources such as The Weather Channel and it even appears on some pages of the NWS [sic] own website as a real warning. The NWS is the original source of the information and displayed it as a real warning.”
A recorded message on the National Weather Service’s national media line said the alert was a test, implying that the mistake was made by AccuWeather, which it did not name.
“The test message was not disseminated to the public via any communication channels operated by the National Weather Service,” the message said.
The NWS did not respond to a phone message.
Roberti said the mistake in coding was not the agency’s first. In October 2014, the company’s CEO warned the agency about the problem in writing, he said.
“We understand the reason for test messages, but we feel that NWS consider fail safe measures for the future to prevent such an occurrence,” CEO Barry Myers wrote at the time. Using the word “Test” in the header, but not the coding, could lead to confusion in a system that “has proven to be a less than perfect system,” he said.
Molleda, who emailed reporters within an hour of the alert, said his office received several calls to confirm the information.
The tsunami alert system is tested monthly, he said, along with other alerts for hurricanes and tornadoes. The weather service typically issues a live warning, which is then disseminated by private companies and received by subscribers.
“This is a routine monthly test. This is not something we did for the first time,” he said. “This is one of those weird things that happens.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich