As a dangerous and life-threatening wall of water was potentially headed for Hawaii and the U.S. west coast late Tuesday, a key federal online information portal for providing the public with up-to-date and reliable tsunami information faltered. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s tsunami.gov website presented out-of-date and inaccurate information, while at times ceasing to operate altogether.
The tsunami threat did not materialize, but the incident raises concerns about NOAA's ability to provide reliable information to keep people safe during a tsunami emergency.
The potential for a tsunami was triggered by a magnitude-7.5 earthquake that rocked the ocean floor east of Russia near the Kuril Islands. Within about 10 minutes of the massive tremor, NOAA’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, based near Honolulu, issued a tsunami watch for the Hawaiian Islands, cautioning “a tsunami may have been generated by this earthquake that could be destructive on coastal areas even far from the epicenter.”
(The tsunami warning center serving the continental United States, based in Alaska, issued a statement indicating the west coast should monitor the situation, though a watch was not issued and a follow-up bulletin concluded there was no threat.)
The Hawaii tsunami watch was posted to the website of the NOAA National Weather Service forecast office in Honolulu and on its Twitter feed.
Yet the agency's tsunami portal, tsunami.gov, intended to be a one-stop shop for information on such hazards, presented conflicting information. In bold print and large letters, the NOAA tsunami.gov website headlined: "No Tsunami Warning, Advisory, Watch, or Threat," while the watch was in effect.
Then, when the watch was canceled less than an hour later, the list of advisories on the Tsunami.gov website failed to update and provide the latest statement indicating the watch had been canceled. Some people reported not being able to access the website at all during the event. In addition, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center Twitter feed failed to issue any statements on the tsunami threat.
In a statement, National Weather Service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan attributed the tsunami.gov problems to "a local router setting" which was fixed within an hour, she said.
"The Watch did not appear on the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center's website because that website was discontinued a month ago and had been automatically redirecting visitors to tsunami.gov," she said. "That redirect was scheduled to expire yesterday, so visitors would need to go directly to tsunami.gov to receive tsunami watches and warnings. This change was communicated to the public via a Service Change Notice in February. Separately, the Watch did not appear on tsunami.gov immediately. Within an hour, staff at the National Tsunami Warning Center in Alaska changed a local router setting and the Watch appeared on tsunami.gov."
The conflicting information and the lack of timely, easy to access and reliable updates on NOAA's web and social media platforms elicited a great deal of concern from users.
"The US tsunami warning website continues to be a broken and terrible resource for the public during potential emergencies," tweeted Jon Passantino, a news director at CNN. "At present, there is a tsunami watch in effect for Hawaii but the site incorrectly states there is none."
Passantino added in a follow-up tweet: "At this point it would be better to have the site taken offline than promoting bad info."
Ryan Ozawa, a communications professional for HawaiiInformation.com, tweeted: "[C]an we talk about how the PTWC's web and social platforms failed us?"
Aubrey Urbanowicz, a broadcast meteorologist in Virginia, said she was searching for the latest information and found the tsunami.gov website difficult to navigate. "Knowing there was a watch issued but not seeing on the site was confusing and frustrating," she said via a direct message. "I was wondering where the gap in communication was."
Users reported similar problems with tsunami.gov when a magnitude-7.7 earthquake struck near Jamaica on Jan. 28, and there were concerns about a tsunami.
The problems with the website appear to violate the spirit of the Tsunami Warning, Education and Research Act of 2017, which was part of the 2017 United States Weather Research and Forecasting Improvement Bill, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump.
The tsunami act requires NOAA make tsunami information available to the public, maintaining a "fail-safe warning capability." The act stipulates that NOAA "implement mass communication tools . . . for the purpose of timely and effective delivery of tsunami warnings." It also states that operational procedures be carried out "consistently across the warning system" and "applied in a uniform manner."
The issues with tsunami.gov on Tuesday night are not unique to this event, either. National Weather Service websites have encountered many operational challenges and outages in recent years, including during major weather events.