Fake Tsunami Alert Raises More Questions

Less than a month after Hawaii’s false missile warning, another false alert was sent out, causing widespread panic. Tuesday, a false alert was sent out to thousands of phones across the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and Caribbean warning of an impending tsunami. The fake tsunami alert was quickly remedied, but not without evoking panic and images of disaster for many.

Fake Tsunami Alert
rolandmey / Pixabay

Although plenty of disaster movies have depicted the Statue of Liberty engulfed in Tsunami, the East Coast of the US is not a tsunami risk zone. The City of New York quickly remedied the panic by issuing a tweet:

A Tsunami Test was conducted earlier this morning, that did have TEST in the message. We are currently trying to find out how a message went out as a warning. We will update you when we find out more.

More than an hour after the false alarm, the National Weather Service sent out a tweet retracting the fake tsunami alert, without taking responsibility, “There is NO current Tsunami Warning, Advisory, Watch, or Threat for the U.S.”

Similar warnings were sent out to major cities on the East Coast, including Miami, Charleston, and Boston, as well as cities on the Gulf.

Who’s to Blame?

According to the National Weather Service’s National Tsunami Warning Center, a test alert was sent out at 8:30 am. Susan Buchanan, spokeswoman for the National Weather Service, claims the alert was sent out as a test, but “at least one private sector company” instead sent the test out as an official warning.

Although the National Weather Service declined to directly point fingers, AccuWeather, out of Pennsylvania, has admitted that they sent out a fake tsunami warning. However, Barry Lee Myers, the chief executive officer of AccuWeather, insists that it was not their fault. Myers claims the National Weather Service sent them a genuine alert. Because a code had been entered by the National Weather Service that indicated a real threat, it routed automatically through AccuWeather’s system, not granting experts the opportunity to stop the false alert. AccuWeather quickly issued a message through their social media channels allerting followers that the tsunami alert was false.

According to AccuWeather this isn’t the first time it’s happened. Meyers said, “It’s a problem AccuWeather has warned the weather service about for years.” Meyers also pointed out that the false alert even appeared on the National Weather Service’s website.

Meyers frustrations should be allayed, as he may soon have oversight of the National Weather Service. He was recently chosen by President Trump to serve as the new chief of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The NOAA oversees the National Weather Service. Meyers nomination has been confirmed by the House, but not yet by the Senate.

Those with the Weather Channel app also received the fake tsunami alert. In an online statement, they admitted that those who subscribe to weather alerts on their phone received the false warning. According to the Weather Channel, the fake tsunami alert was received by thousands of subscribers on the East Coast. The Weather Channel likewise blamed the National Weather Service.

Why Does it Matter?

The recent false alarms, between Hawaii’s traumatic false missile warning and the fake tsunami alert, creates a “boy who cried wolf” kind of scenario. Reading on your phone that a tsunami is inbound for the East Coast or a missile is heading for Hawaii is already hard enough to believe, but the erroneous alerts have created even more suspicion. In the future, people may read alerts and ignore them assuming it is yet another false alarm.

Congress quickly held a hearing to discuss the growing phenomenon of false alarms. Representative Donald Payne Jr., a Democrat representing the Garden State, said “For the public alerts and the warnings to be effective, the public has to be able to trust them. False alerting can be very dangerous as it can lead to alert apathy, confusion and unnecessary panic.”

Dan Donovan, a Republican from New York and chairman of the House Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee said, “Unfortunately, there have been erroneous emergency alerts sent to the public. That undermines the confidence in the system.”

Passing the Buck

The FCC is still investigating the January 13 false alarm in Hawaii, but last week it announced a worker had issued the alarm, believing a missile was actually inbound for Hawaii. The FCC report indicates that this employee “confused real-life events and drills in the past.” Previously, Hawaiian authorities had stated that the wrong button was mistakenly pressed. The changing stories has certainly raised eyebrows, while Americans have been asking “How can it be that easy to issue a missile alert?” Somehow it took Hawaii 38 minutes to remedy the mistake, 38 minutes during which people across the state of Hawaii believed their lives were genuinely in danger.

The employee to blame spoke anonymously to NBC,  “I was 100 percent sure that it was the right decision, that it was real. I was convinced that it was real.” Although the employee and others have since resigned, he insists it was not his fault, “I’m really not to blame in this. It was a system failure. I did what I was trained to do.”

If the National Weather Service is correct in their statement that the mistake was made by private companies, it raises questions of how meteorologists and tsunami experts could believe a tsunami was actually inbound for the East Coast, something that has never happened in recorded human history. The fact that multiple weather services report that they received a real warning or a miscoded messaged from the National Weather Service, also brings the NWS’ statements into question.

The National Weather Service says an investigation into the fake tsunami alert is ongoing. The NWS says the false alarm was part of their monthly tsunami warning test.