RIKUZENTAKATA, Iwate Prefecture–A man who lost his wife in the 2011 disaster has filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for what he claims were failures in the tsunami warning system.
According to Toshiyuki Omori, 63, the understated tsunami warning issued by the Japan Meteorological Agency is to blame for the inability of his wife, Sachiko, to flee in time.
He is seeking a total of 60 million yen ($583,000) in compensation from the central and municipal governments.
The lawsuit dated March 10 was filed in the Morioka District Court. It is the first lawsuit that calls into question the warning systems that were in place at the time of the disaster generated by the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Omori, who used to run a soba restaurant here, says that clarifying the reasons behind the understated tsunami warnings will lead to improvements that could prevent future loss of life.
According to the lawsuit, at 2:49 p.m. on March 11, 2011, three minutes after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck, the Meteorological Agency issued a warning that predicted a 3-meter tsunami hitting the coast of Iwate Prefecture.
Omori’s wife died at their home, which was located about 2 kilometers from the coast.
The disaster preparedness PA system set up by the Rikuzentakata municipal government informed residents about the tsunami warning. However, a blackout at the local fire station left communications equipment inoperable, so they did not receive a subsequent warning from the Meteorological Agency at 3:14 p.m. that predicted a 6-meter tsunami. As a result, residents were not informed about the possibility of a larger tsunami striking.
Omori is calling into question the Meteorological Agency’s assessment of the likely size of the tsunami despite the fact that seismograph needles went beyond what the equipment was capable of handling.
“The agency should have issued a warning that said there was the possibility of an unprecedented gigantic tsunami striking,” Omori said.
He named the municipal government as a defendant because of its insufficient maintenance of its fire station equipment.
According to the Rikuzentakata municipal government’s report about evacuation after the quake and tsunami, the tsunami that struck the city was about 14 meters high.
“I believe there were many people who were slow in evacuating because they heard the understated warning,” Omori said. “This is not a matter that can be put aside with such words as ‘beyond the scope of assumptions’ or ‘unparalleled.'”
An official with the Meteorological Agency said, “We cannot comment because we have not yet read the lawsuit.”
An official with the Rikuzentakata municipal government also said no response could be made because the city was not yet aware of the contents of the lawsuit.
The initial 3-meter tsunami warning for Iwate Prefecture was based on the estimated magnitude of 7.9 that was calculated from the seismographs set up around Japan.
The early-measurement system in place at the time, which issued preliminary magnitude estimates in about three minutes, was unable to calculate any quake above magnitude-8.0.
The more accurate system that calculated magnitude in about 15 minutes also did not function because the needles on 19 of the 21 advanced seismographs went beyond what the equipment was capable of handling.
Using offshore wave gauges, the expected tsunami heights for Iwate and Fukushima prefectures were revised from 3 meters to 6 meters at 3:14 p.m. The tsunami height for Miyagi Prefecture was revised from 6 meters to more than 10 meters.
It was not until 3:31 p.m. that the Meteorological Agency revised the tsunami height for all three prefectures to more than 10 meters.
That revised warning came after the tsunami struck the coast of all three prefectures.
After the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Meteorological Agency installed 80 seismographs around Japan capable of measuring even earthquakes of magnitude-9.0. New water pressure gauges have also been installed off the Pacific coast to more accurately predict the height of expected tsunami.
Tsunami warnings have also been changed from reporting expected heights to simply announcing a “gigantic” or “large” tsunami is expected.