‘Test’ tsunami warning startles Palm Beach County

Did you get a tsunami warning for Palm Beach County on Tuesday morning? Did you spit up your double latte?

Not to worry. It was just a monthly test. But some people didn’t get the “test” part.

Including, apparently, AccuWeather, the weather forecasting company. It sent out individual alerts to localities, including Palm Beach County.

“It was a test. It says ‘test’ in the headline. It says ‘test’ twice. It even says it in Spanish,” said Robert Molleda, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Miami office.

Molleda said the transmission, by the Tsunami Warning Center in Alaska, was for the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. He said FEMA also mentioned it in its morning “roll call” of government partners.

A closer look on the AccuWeather webpage shows that what most people got on their cellphones was a “push” alert that didn’t mention “test” until after a series of clicks.

And, in fact, the service sent out a Twitter post at about 9 a.m. saying, “The National Weather Service Tsunami Warning this morning was a TEST. No Tsunami warning is in effect for the East Coast of the U.S.”

At midday, AccuWeather sent out a statement saying the National Weather Service’s headquarters miscoded the notice.

“While the words ‘TEST’ were in the header, the actual codes read by computers used coding for (a) real warning,” AccuWeather’s statement read. It said other outlets such as the Weather Channel, as well as some of the National Weather Service’s own webpages, also issued erroneous alerts Tuesday.

AccuWeather claimed Tuesday was not the first time NWS miscoding triggered erroneous alerts. It said it notified the agency as far back as October 2014 about the need to fix glitches.

A call to the weather service’s national press office was answered by a recording that detailed Tuesday morning’s events and ended with, “We are currently looking into why the ‘test’ message was distributed by at least one private-sector company and will provide more information as soon as we have it. Thank you.”

“We don’t have a record, as far back as we know, of tsunami in southeast Florida and Palm Beach County,” Molleda said from the weather service office west of Miami. “The tsunami risk here is pretty low. It’s not zero. But it’s pretty low.”

The region does get big waves. In 1991, a 20-foot “freak wave,” part of the East Coast’s memorable “Perfect Storm,” washed over a sea wall in Palm Beach and washed away a monument to the “Cowboys of the Sea,” the legendary local club of people who’d rescued swimmers.

None of this is to say that South Florida couldn’t get a tsunami. But it wouldn’t be a 100-foot wave washing over The Breakers, Molleda said. Instead, he said, “it would be rather muted,” more in the line of some strong currents and slightly higher waves.

Earthquakes have occurred all across the area, in places close enough to send waves into the coast. And on top of that, massive underwater landslides have occurred. Some believe one such event sent the legendary city of Atlantis beneath the waves and into oblivion. (Not to be confused with the city of the same name in central Palm Beach County, which at last check was doing well and mostly was high and dry.)

But Molleda said South Florida has plenty of things going for it. Giant waves would have to go a long distance over deep water, where energy could dissipate. Numerous stretches of extremely shallow water, and even sandbars, lie in the way. The Grand Bahama Bank is a big one. And that’s not to mention the islands of the Bahamas themselves — bad for them, but good for South Florida.

The erroneous tsunami report comes on the heels of a similar “false” report. Last month the Hawaiian state Emergency Management Agency sent out an erroneous text warning of a ballistic missile threat heading to Hawaii, creating some to flee in panic fearing an attack by North Korea. A federal investigation determined the alert was intentionally sent by an employee who mistook a drill for a real attack.

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