FUDAI, Japan — In the rubble of Japan's northeast coast, one small village stands as tall as ever after the tsunami. No homes were swept away. In fact, they barely got wet.
Fudai is the village that survived — thanks to a huge wall once deemed a mayor's expensive folly and now vindicated as the community's salvation.
The 3,000 residents living between mountains behind a cove owe their lives to a late leader who saw the devastation of an earlier tsunami and made it the priority of his four-decade tenure to defend his people from the next one.
His 51-foot floodgate between mountainsides took a dozen years to build and cost more than $30 million in today's dollars.
"It cost a lot of money. But without it, Fudai would have disappeared," said seaweed fisherman Satoshi Kaneko, 55, whose business was ruined but is happy to have his family and home intact.
The floodgate project was criticized as wasteful in the 1970s. But the gate and an equally high seawall behind the community's adjacent fishing port protected Fudai from the waves that obliterated so many other towns on March 11. Two months after the disaster, more than 25,000 people are missing or dead.
"However you look at it, the effectiveness of the floodgate and seawall was truly impressive," Fudai Mayor Hiroshi Fukawatari said.
Towns to the north and south also braced against tsunamis with concrete seawalls, breakwaters and other protective structures. But none were as tall as Fudai's.
The town of Taro believed it had the ultimate fort — a double-layered 33-foot-tall seawall spanning 1.6 miles across a bay. It proved no match for the tsunami.
In Fudai, the waves rose as high as 66 feet, as water marks show on the floodgate's towers. So some ocean water did flow over, but it caused minimal damage. The gate broke the tsunami's main thrust. And the community is lucky to have two mountainsides flanking the gate, offering a natural barrier.
The man credited with saving Fudai is the late Kotaku Wamura, a 10-term mayor whose political reign began in the ashes of World War II and ended in 1987.
Fudai, about 320 miles north of Tokyo, depends on the sea. Fishermen boast of the seaweed they harvest. A white-sand beach lures tourists every summer.
But Wamura never forgot how quickly the sea could turn. Massive earthquake-triggered tsunamis flattened Japan's northeast coast in 1933 and 1896. In Fudai, the two disasters destroyed hundreds of homes and killed 439.
"When I saw bodies being dug up from the piles of earth, I did not know what to say. I had no words," Wamura wrote of the 1933 tsunami in his book about Fudai, A 40-Year Fight Against Poverty.
He vowed it would never happen again.
In 1967, the town erected a 51-foot seawall to shield homes behind the fishing port. But Wamura wasn't finished. He had a bigger project in mind for the cove up the road, where most of the community was located. That area needed a floodgate with panels that could be lifted to allow the Fudai River to empty into the cove and lowered to block tsunamis.
On March 11, after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit, workers closed the floodgate's panels. Behind the floodgate, the village is virtually untouched.
Wamura left office three years after the floodgate was completed, in 1984. He died in 1997 at age 88. Since the tsunami, residents have been visiting his grave to pay respects.