May 15, 2011 in Nation/World

Once-belittled floodgate saved Japanese town

Longtime mayor pushed 51-foot structure
Tomoko A. Hosaka Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

The Fudai floodgate, pictured last month, kept tsunami damage from going beyond the beach, at left.
(Full-size photo)

FUDAI, Japan – In the rubble of Japan’s northeast coast, one small village stands as tall as ever after the March 11 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 a priority 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 has been ruined but who is happy to have his family and home intact.

Towns to the north and south also braced against tsunamis with concrete seawalls, breakwaters and other protective structures. But none was 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. It proved no match for the tsunami.

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.

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 killed 439 people.

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: 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. The village council initially balked.

“They weren’t necessarily against the idea of floodgates, just the size,” said Yuzo Mifune, head of Fudai’s resident services and an unofficial floodgate historian. “But Wamura somehow persuaded them that this was the only way to protect lives.”

Construction began in 1972 despite lingering concerns about its size. The concrete structure spanning 673 feet was completed in 1984.

On March 11, 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 white beach in the cove, leaving debris and fallen trees. But behind the floodgate, the village is virtually untouched.

Wamura died in 1997 at age 88. At his retirement, Wamura stood before village employees to bid farewell: “Even if you encounter opposition, have conviction and finish what you start. In the end, people will understand.”

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