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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, March 13, 2005

Tsunami victims' suit names NOAA

Advertiser Staff and News Reports

The agency that operates the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in 'Ewa Beach is being sued by Indian Ocean tsunami survivors and relatives of victims.

The suit says the center and other defendants did not do enough to protect people from the December tsunami, which killed as many as 300,000 people.

Workers at the center have said they tried to warn Indian Ocean nations but most of those nations have no warning mechanism in place.

The lawsuit does not seek damages, but instead asks the court to preserve evidence for the plaintiffs so they can decide whether to pursue damages.

The suit claims the Thai government is destroying evidence that will prove its officials knew of the approaching tsunami but chose not to issue a warning fearing its effect on the country's tourism industry. The suit was filed in New York. Named as defendants are the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Thailand's government, Thailand's Meteorological Department and the Accor group, the French owner of the Sofitel hotel chain, which owns a beachfront hotel in Phuket, Thailand.

NOAA's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center monitors seismic and ocean conditions in the Pacific Basin and issues warnings to member nations. The 'Ewa Beach center has been criticized for not being more aggressive about warning southern Asian nations after they were alerted to 9.0-magnitude earthquake off Indonesia.NOAA officials refused comment.

But workers at the warning center told The Advertiser in December that they frantically worked the phones from the warning center in 'Ewa Beach on Christmas night trying to get the word out.

On Dec. 25, the 'Ewa Beach center issued a Pacificwide e-mail tsunami bulletin 18 minutes after the quake hit, but most potential victims weren't among the center's Pacific nation clients. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center's only Indian Ocean clients are Australia and Indonesia. And the Indian Ocean has no oceanwide tsunami detection system, and no warning system.

The workers in Honolulu said they had no way to alert the potential victims.

"We talked to the State Department Operations Center and to the military. We called embassies. We talked to the navy in Sri Lanka, any local government official we could get hold of," Barry Hirshorn, one of the geophysicists, said in December.

"We spoke to people in the foreign ministries, and everywhere we could think of," duty officer Stuart Weinstein said.

Pacific Tsunami Warning Center chief Charles "Chip" McCreery has said that by the time his agency learned that a tsunami had been generated, it was already on the news.