Village unscathed by tsunami - thanks to mayor's 'crazy idea'

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WHEN the mayor of the Japanese coastal village of Fudai ordered a 51ft-high wall built in the 1970s to protect his people from the potential ravages of a tsunami, he was called crazy, foolish and wasteful.

But after Fudai survived the monster wave that followed the 11 March earthquake unscathed, he is now regarded as a saviour.

The 3,000 residents of Fudai, living between mountains behind a cove, owe their lives to the late mayor Kotaku Wamura, who saw the devastation of an earlier tsunami and made it the priority of his four decades in office to defend the village from the next one.

His floodgate between mountainsides took a dozen years to build and cost the equivalent 18 million today.

"It cost a lot of money. But without it, Fudai would have disappeared," said seaweed fisherman Satoshi Kaneko, 55.

The project was criticised as wasteful. 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 and killed more than 25,000 people.

"However you look at it, the effectiveness of the floodgate and seawall was truly impressive," the current Fudai mayor, Hiroshi Fukawatari, said.

Towns to the north and south also braced against tsunamis with concrete seawalls. But none were as tall as Fudai's.

In Fudai, the waves rose as high as 66ft, so some ocean water did flow over, but it caused minimal damage. The gate broke the tsunami's main thrust.

And it was all down to Mayor Wamura, whose political reign began in the ashes of the Second World War and ended in 1987.

Fudai, about 320 miles north of Tokyo, has a pretty, white-sand beach that lured tourists every summer. But Mr Wamura never forgot how quickly the sea could turn. Massive tsunamis flattened the coast in 1933 and 1896. "When I saw bodies being dug up from the piles of earth, I had no words," he wrote of the 1933 tsunami.

In 1967, the town erected a 51ft seawall to shield homes behind the fishing port. But the mayor 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. He insisted the structure be as tall as the seawall - but the village council initially refused.

"They weren't necessarily against the idea of floodgates, just the size," said Yuzo Mifune, a local historian. "But Wamura somehow persuaded them."

Construction began in 1972 despite lingering concerns about its size as well as bitterness among landowners forced to sell land to the government.

Even current Mayor Fukawatari, who helped oversee construction, had his doubts. "I did wonder whether we needed something this big," he said.

The concrete structure spanning 673 feet was completed in 1984. The total bill was split between the prefecture and central government.

On 11 March, after the 9.0 earthquake hit, workers remotely closed the floodgate's four main panels. Smaller panels on the sides jammed, and a firefighter had to rush down to shut them by hand.

The tsunami battered the beach, leaving behind debris and fallen trees. But behind the floodgate, the village is virtually untouched.

Fudai Elementary School sits a few minutes' walk inland. It looks the same as it did on 10 March. This week, a group of boys ran laps around a baseball field that was clear of the detritus piled in other coastal areas.

Their coach, Sachio Kamimukai, 36, said he never thought much about the floodgate until the tsunami. "It was just always something that was there. But I'm very thankful now."

Mr Wamura left office three years after the floodgate was completed. He died in 1997 at age 88. Since the tsunami, residents have been visiting his grave to pay respects.

At his retirement, Mr Wamura stood before village employees to bid farewell. He told them: "Even if you encounter opposition, have conviction and finish what you start. In the end, people will understand."