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 meant spending 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 has been ruined but who 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.
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. Also, two mountainsides flank the gate, offering a natural barrier.
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 in an interview at his office.