Venice was hit by the highest tide in more than 50 years, causing bewildered tourists to wade through flooded streets to seek shelter, as a fierce wind whipped up waves in St. Mark’s Square. The exceptionally intense acqua alta, or high waters, peaked at six feet as the flood alarm sounded across Italy’s iconic ‘City of Canals.’
“We’re currently facing an exceptionally high tide. Everyone has been mobilized to cope with the emergency,” Venice’s Mayor Luigi Brugnaro tweeted.
Only once since records began in 1923 has the water crept even higher, reaching 6.3 feet in 1966. As emergency services took to the canals to survey the damage, reports emerged that one Venetian, a 78-year-old man, was electrocuted as the rising waters poured into his home. Apparently, he was attempting to start a pump when he died. The situation became so dire that the Italian Coast Guard sent extra boats to the city to serve as water ambulances. The flooding was caused by a combination of high tides and a meteorological storm surge driven by strong winds blowing across the Adriatic Sea. When such events coincide, the high waters occur.
It was a surreal sight for anyone in the city’s historic center, as tables and chairs set out for aperitifs, bobbed along alleyways in the dark, as locals and tourists alike waded through the streets, the water reaching well above even the highest boots. Water taxis attempting to drop people off at the glamorous and historic hotels along the Grand Canal discovered that gangways had been washed away and had to help passengers clamber through windows.
Three water taxis actually sank in the aftermath of the high tide. None of the vessels secured to pilings were manned at the time. In each case, the ropes were too short to account for the tide, which effectively flooded the boats which were unable to rise with the current. More than a dozen other boats were left stranded on terra firma as the waters receded. In the midst of the flood, Venice tourists continued sightseeing as best they could. One couple told the media that they needed to effectively swim to shelter after some of the wooden platforms placed around the flood prone areas in the city had overturned.
“It will be a long night,” Mayor Brugnaro tweeted. As the tide fell and the water level began to drop, he messaged, “the fears of a few hours ago are now being replaced by an assessment of the damage done,” and declared a state of disaster for the city.
At the sumptuous Gritti Palace, which has played host to royals and celebrities over the decades, its lavishly-appointed bar was largely under water. Rich tapestries were piled onto tables, while the waters lapped around the palazzo’s velvet sofas and collector edition leather-bound books.
Venice is comprised of more than 100 islands located within a lagoon off the northeast coast of Italy. The increased frequency of exceptional tides is an enormous concern for the city. Since 2003, the Mose Project, an enormous undertaking to build 78 gates to protect Venice’s lagoon during high tides, has been under development. Although the project is well into its second decade, it has been plagued by cost overruns and delays. The series of large barriers acting as floodgates are to be raised from the sea bed to shut off the lagoon in the event of rising sea levels and winter storms. Mose has already cost billions of euros. The first phase of the project was successfully tested in 2013. The final phase of testing is still almost two years away, after which time, the flood barriers will be turned over to the Venice City Council.
One of the greatest concerns is the damage sustained in the city’s iconic St. Mark’s Square. Located in one of the lowest portions of the city, it is particularly affected by the high tides. The vestibule of the Basilica was inundated with water as authorities carefully watched other historic buildings throughout the night.
Pierpaolo Campostrini, a member of St. Mark’s council, said that the scale of the flooding had only rarely occurred in the long history of the Basilica, whose construction began in 828 AD. The latest incident has caused the Basilica to be flooded for only the sixth time in its 1,200 year history. However, four of the floods have occurred within the last 20 years. Previous to this most recent disaster, St. Mark’s also sustained flood damage in 2018. In the aftermath of the storm surge, it was confirmed that the Basilica’s crypt was completely flooded and there are fears of structural damage to the columns of the building. The Cultural Ministry of Italy announced that it would help to fund improvements to the Basilica’s flood defenses, but there are many in Venice who worry that it will be too little, too late.