This post has been updated.
Partly sunny with a chance of tsunami — that’s the forecast to which residents along the East Coast woke up Tuesday morning.
Actually, only the AccuWeather customers woke up to the mobile phone alert that a tsunami was imminent. Phones buzzed with the push alert from Connecticut to Florida. Somewhere along the line, the fact that this was a test got lost in translation for AccuWeather’s mobile apps and notification services. The Weather Company also confirmed Tuesday afternoon that it posted the tsunami warning test on weather.com, but the problem was corrected and it was never sent to mobile users as an alert.
If AccuWeather users clicked through into the app and then the warning text itself, they may have seen that it was just a test. But that’s the kind of nuance that gets lost in the threat of a tsunami.
“You may have wanted to put that it was a test in the pop-up alert, rather than having to go in the app and expand the message to see it was only a test,” one frustrated customer wrote on Twitter. “Not a good alert to see without explanation!!”
AccuWeather issued a statement Tuesday afternoon that blamed the National Weather Service for a “miscoded” product.
“This morning AccuWeather passed on a National Weather Service Tsunami Warning that was intended by the NWS to be a test but was miscoded by the NWS as a real warning,” the statement said. “While the words ‘TEST’ were in the header, the actual codes read by computers used coding for real warning, indicating it was a real warning.”
The Washington Post looked through the tsunami alerts sent by the National Weather Service on Tuesday. All of them were coded with a “T” at the beginning, which indicates it is a test. This is the code the National Weather Service issued Tuesday morning at 8:28 a.m. Eastern Time:
In its plain-text messaging, too, the National Weather Service clearly stated that the alert was meant for testing purposes:
Archived alerts from 2017 and prior also indicate the same type of coding has been used in previous test alerts.
AccuWeather said there was conflicting code in the message that made it seem to their algorithms like the warning was real, and “when there is such a conflicting coding by NWS, our system defaulted to the interpretation to save lives rather than place lives at risk,” said Jon Porter, AccuWeather’s Vice President of Business Services, said in an email to The Post.
The National Weather Service stands by its tsunami warning test.
“Our investigation into this routine monthly tsunami test message confirmed that it was coded as a test message,” the Weather Service said in a statement Tuesday evening. “We are working with private sector companies to determine why some systems did not recognize the coding.
The early morning alert came less than a month after Hawaii warned residents of a missile attack that didn’t exist. A federal investigation of that incident found that the employee believed there “was a real emergency, not a drill,” The Washington Post reported. That agency’s top official, Vern T. Miyagi, took full responsibility for the incident and resigned.
AccuWeather’s chief executive, Barry Myers, is President Trump’s choice to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service. The pick has drawn criticism from former NOAA chiefs, who have expressed concern about Myers’s conflicts of interest, The Washington Post’s Robert O’Harrow reported in an investigation:
Myers’s earned more $900,000 last year at AccuWeather, based in State College, Pa., and his holdings in the firm are worth up to $50 million, according to financial disclosure forms and other documents filed with the Senate.
Over the past two decades, Myers has been a determined force behind efforts to persuade Congress to curb free initiatives by NOAA’s National Weather Service that overlap with services provided by AccuWeather and other private weather firms, while at the same time pressing the government to give AccuWeather expanded access to weather-related data.
The National Weather Service said it was clear in its messaging Tuesday morning that there was not, in fact, a tsunami barreling toward the East Coast. It directed customers to its official statements and products, instead.
“Private sector partners perform a valuable service in disseminating warnings to the public,” the Weather Service said in its statement. “We will continue to work with our partners to prevent this from occurring again.”