Venice Flooding Brings City to ‘Its Knees’


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ROME — The mayor of Venice, who said that the city “was on its knees,” has called for a state of emergency and the closing of all schools after the Italian city was submerged under “acqua alta,” an exceptionally high tide — the highest in 50 years.

Outdoor restaurant tables and chairs could be seen bobbing in the waters, and tourists were forced to clamber through the windows of high-end hotels as the water rose to about six feet before 11 p.m. on Tuesday.

As dawn broke on Wednesday, the authorities began to survey the damage.

“I’ve seen things in San Marco I thought I’d never see,” Mayor Luigi Brugnaro of Venice told the Italian station Radio24. “It is a very difficult situation,” he added.

In a post on Twitter, the mayor blamed climate change for the city’s troubles and called for the rapid completion of a long-delayed barrier system.

Later, speaking at a news conference alongside national and local officials, the mayor said that the damage had been significant. “We’re talking hundreds of millions of euros,” he said.

The flooding was the second highest in the city’s history, after the disastrous flood of 1966, which peaked at 6.3 feet. Last year, as severe weather in Italy killed 11 people, ferocious winds drove the high tide in Venice to more than five feet above average sea level.

Residents and tourists could be seen wading through water in rain boots. The water invaded the ground floors of many historic palazzos, stores, restaurants and hotels. At least three vaporetti, Venice’s public transportation boats, sank, Italian media reported. One floated over the banks that line the city’s canals, ending up perilously close to buildings.

“Venice is on its knees,” the mayor said in a post on Twitter on Wednesday with photos showing him walking through the basilica with the city’s principal prelate, the patriarch of Venice, Francesco Moraglia.

Italian news outlets reported that at least one man had died by electrocution while trying to pump water from his home in Pellestrina, an island that borders on the Venetian lagoon and forms a barrier against the Adriatic Sea. The body of another man was found in his home, according to local news outlets.

Though Venetian residents have gotten used to wading through flooded streets, strong winds on Tuesday coincided with the high tide, submerging the city.

“Acqua alta has always been normal,” said Lorenzo Bonometto, an expert on lagoon ecology. But the combined high tide and strong winds made the result “an exceptional event,” he said.

The frequency of acqua alta has become more troubling, experts say, and is linked to rising seawater levels, not only in Venice, but also around the world.

Sea levels are rising “at a faster rate” than experts had expected, and that is having a greater impact on the lagoon city, Mr. Bonometto said.

While flooding is a complex phenomenon with many causes, the effects of climate change on sea-level rise, and the intense rainfall that comes with the greater capacity of a warming atmosphere to hold more moisture, are increasingly recognized as factors that can boost natural variation in weather patterns.

There is also the added fact that Venice is sinking.

Luigi Cavaleri, an engineer at the Institute of Marine Sciences in Venice said the city’s subsidence and the rising sea levels meant that Venice was sinking at a rate of one-fifth of an inch a year. That means that the city will be submerged by water more frequently.

Mr. Cavaleri said last year’s storm was a much more serious event, but noted, “Floods will continue.”

Had the flood system been operational, he said, “the city might have been spared. Hopefully, it will be for the next flood.”

Mr. Brugnaro, the mayor, said a completed MOSE project could have averted the disaster — it is scheduled to be operative from 2022 — but that flood barriers were just one element of a complex system. And other elements necessary for the health of the lagoon, such as for the navigability of the canal, were still incomplete.

“We need resources and clear ideas,” he said. “For now, MOSE is a ghost. We want to see it finished.”

John Schwartz contributed reporting from New York.



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