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Tsunami Warning alert for Tampa Bay Area was just a TEST, National Weather Service says

Posted at 9:14 AM, Feb 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-06 19:19:05-05

Some Tampa Bay Area residents may have gotten an alert on their phones for a Tsunami Alert on Tuesday morning. Don't panic, the alert was just a test!

ABC Action Weather meteorologist, Greg Dee says there are no active earthquakes in the Gulf of Mexico and there is no actual tsunami happening. 



The National Weather Service alert was sent out to a majority of the east coast as a test at approximately 8:30 a.m. Some users received the test message as an actual Tsunami Warning. 



The National Weather Service released the following statement after the alert was sent: 

There is no tsunami threat. The National Tsunami Warning Center of the National Weather Service issued a routine test message at approximately 8:30 am ET this morning. The test message was released by at least one private sector company as an official Tsunami Warning, resulting in widespread reports of tsunami warnings received via phones and other media across the East Coast, Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean. We're currently looking into why the test message was communicated as an actual tsunami warning, and will provide more information as soon as we have it.

They later updated the statement to alert the public to where the investigation stands:

Our investigation into this routine monthly tsunami test message confirmed that it was coded as a test message. We are working with private sector companies to determine why some systems did not recognize the coding. Private sector partners perform a valuable service in disseminating warnings to the public. We will continue to work with our partners to prevent this from occurring again.

Accuweather says the alert was intended to be a test but was miscoded by the National Weather Service as a real warning. They released the following statement on Tuesday afternoon:

AccuWeather Global Headquarters - February 6, 2017 - 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.  AccuWeather has the most sophisticated system for passing on NWS tsunami warnings based on a complete computer scan of the codes used by the NWS. 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 NWS warning also later appeared on other sources such as The Weather Channel and it even appears on some pages of the NWS own website as a real warning.  The NWS is the original source of the information and displayed it as a real warning.

Tsunami warnings are handled with the utmost concern by AccuWeather and it has sophisticated algorithms to scan the entire message, not just header words, as from the time of a warning to the actual event can be mere minutes.  AccuWeather was correct in reading the mistaken NWS codes embedded in the warning.  The responsibility is on the NWS to properly and consistently code the messages, for only they know if the message is correct or not.

As reported by AccuWeather, once discovered that the NWS had incorrectly coded the warning, we sent messages  via social channels that no tsunami warning is in effect for the East Coast of the U.S.

This is not the first time legitimate warning coding was embedded erroneously by the NWS and consequently triggered alerts.   In October 2014, AccuWeather advised NWS in writing about the potential for this problem to be repeated if not fixed.

AccuWeather's CEO Barry Myers wrote to the NWS over three years ago: "We understand the reason for test messages, but we feel that NWS consider fail safe measures for the future to prevent such an occurrence.  The issuance did say it was a "TSUNAMI WARNING," but it was not a tsunami warning, rather simply a test of the system.  We note that the method currently used of relying on the "TEST" in the header of the product and a test in the VTEC status, as the identifying device for software coding in numerous programs and systems used by a plethora of companies to identify such messages, has proven to be a less than perfect system." 

This is all a matter of public record.

We are continuing to work with NWS to determine why this coding was improperly embedded in its test alert system. The NWS previously stated they are looking into why the test message was pushed out as an actual warning.

"It said Tsunami warning for Tarpon Springs," David Banther said.

Banther is the Vice Mayor for the City of Tarpon Springs. He received the message on his phone.

"The first thing I thought of was there is no higher ground in Tarpon Springs to go to," he said.

Banther said he believed it initially.

"Within a few minutes we were told it was just a test, but I don't know how it is so difficult to put the word test in a news alert," Banther said.

The false alert was received by people who live along the East Coast, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico.

"I think people need to be more careful with these alerts that we get that if something that is, you know, life threatening that......if it's a test....that it says so," Banther said.

USF Professor and Associate Dean of the College of Marine Science Gary Mitchum said a tsunami in the Gulf of Mexico is very unlikely.

"Tsunami's can happen because of an earthquake, which happen more in a geological setting that is not the Gulf of Mexico or from large landslides, which are also pretty uncommon," Mitchum said.

Even if there is an earthquake in the Gulf of Mexico, like what happened a few years ago, Mitchum said most of the big earthquakes that cause tsunami's happen in another part of the world.

"Even on the east coast of the United States, there is a potential — especially from the Puerto Rican trench, but we're pretty lucky. The odds are very small," Mitchum said.