The Meteorological Agency on Aug. 30 started a system to use a “special warning” (tokubetsu keiho) designation for natural disasters that are very likely to cause heavy damage. As Mr. Mitsuhiko Hatori, director general of the agency, said, a special warning means that a life or death situation is imminent. Once such a warning is issued, the general public and local governments must think that a life-threatening situation is approaching and take necessary action — that is, evacuate quickly to minimize the possibility of disaster-related casualties.

Special warnings will be issued for heavy rains, storms, high tides, high waves, heavy snow and blizzards. But the agency will continue to use the conventional terms “emergency earthquake early warning” (kinkyu jishin sokuho) for an earthquake whose intensity is six or higher on the Japanese scale of seven, “eruption warning” (funka keiho) for a volcanic eruption that requires evacuation and “major tsunami warning” (o-tsunami keiho) for a tsunami that is more than three meters high. The agency said that these conventional terms are on a par with special warnings.

In the case of heavy rains, a special warning will be issued for each municipality when a record heavy rain for the past 50 years is imminent. The agency has set a criterion for issuing a special heavy rain warning by studying past precipitation records, including precipitation for three hours periods and for 48 hour periods, in individual municipalities across the country.

From the rainy season to autumn, people watch for a special heavy rain warning because localized heavy rains are frequently occurring in Japan nowadays. In the past month, record heavy rains hit the Tohoku and Chugoku regions, causing casualties. If the new criteria are applied, these heavy rains have been strong enough to merit the issuance of special warnings. At that time, the agency called on local residents to “immediately take an action that protects your life.” But it turned out that the call came too late for some areas — after the peak of heavy rains passed. The agency must make efforts to improve the accuracy of its weather forecast so that future special warnings will be issued in a more timely manner.

Local governments need to take into consideration the possibility that special warnings may not be issued in time. The agency has posted the criteria for issuing special heavy rain warnings for each municipality on its website. Municipal governments must carefully observe rainfalls and take measures to evacuate people if necessary, even before special warnings are issued.

Residents also need to carefully observe the geographical features of their local areas and decide upon a place where they and their family would evacuate to if a special heavy rain warning is issued. This also applies to special warnings for other disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis.

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