Climate change, corruption blamed for Venice flood devastation

The Italian government declared a state of emergency, as Venice is bracing for another high tide Friday

Photo: EPA An overview of the narthex of the Basilica of San Marco, damaged by flooding in Venice.

Much of Venice was left under water after the highest tide in 50 years ripped through the historic Italian city, beaching gondolas, trashing hotels and sending tourists fleeing through rapidly rising waters. As it was bracing for another exceptional high tide Friday, Italy declared a state of emergency for the UNESCO city where the perilous deluges have caused millions of euros worth of damage.

The crisis has in addition prompted the government to release $22m in funds to tackle the devastation.

"The disaster that has struck Venice is a blow to the heart of our country," Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Thursday at the scene. "It hurts to see the city so damaged, its artistic heritage threatened."

The exceptionally intense "acqua alta," or high waters, peaked at 1.87 metres on Tuesday. Only once since records began in 1923 has the water crept even higher, reaching 1.94 metres in 1966. President of the Veneto region Luca Zaia said 80% of the city had been submerged, causing "unimaginable damage" to the city, which has 50,000 residents but receives 36 million visitors each year. The water was expected to reach 1.5 metres mid-morning on Friday as strong storms and winds batter the region - lower than Tuesday's peak but still dangerous, local officials said.

Amid the events, officials blamed climate change while shopkeepers on the Grand Canal raged against those who have failed to protect the UNESCO city from the high tide. They said that corruption had repeatedly delayed a barrier protection system that could have prevented the disaster.

What they were referring to is a massive infrastructure project called MOSE, which has been under way since 2003 to protect the city, but it has been plagued by cost overruns, corruption scandals and delays. The plan involves 78 gates that can be raised to protect Venice's lagoon during high tides - but a recent attempt to test part of the barrier caused worrying vibrations and engineers discovered parts had rusted.
"The city is on its knees," Venice mayor Luigi Brugnaro said in an interview with national broadcaster RAI.

"There's widespread devastation," he said in the famed St Mark's Square, which bore the brunt of the flooding. "In all likelihood the damage from last night runs into hundreds of millions of euros."

St Mark's Square was calm on Wednesday evening, with just a smattering of tourists walking through the relatively dry square marked with occasional puddles. Four Venetian friends who had gathered in the square, all wearing boots, said the relative quiet and lack of tourists was upside of an otherwise harrowing few days. "We've never seen anything like it," Alvise, 19, told AFP.

Earlier, tourists lugging heavy suitcases waded in thigh-high boots or barefoot through the submerged alleys, as gondola and water taxi drivers baled sewage-tainted water out of their trashed vessels. Meanwhile, dirty water was swirling around the marble tombs inside the 12th-century crypt of St Mark's Basilica, which suffered untold damage when an unprecedented high tide swept through the city. It was closed to tourists as were many other Venice highlights including the Fenice Theatre and the Ducal Palace.

"We said last year that the basilica had aged 20 years in a high tide. It risks having aged much more than that in this one," said the building's procurator Carlo Alberto Tesserin.

A 78-year old was killed by an electric shock as the waters poured into his home. "We ask the government to help us, the costs will be high," mayor Brugnaro tweeted. "These are the effects of climate change." "The future of Venice is at stake," he warned. "We cannot live like this anymore."

Environment Minister Sergio Costa blamed climate change and the "tropicalisation" of violent rainfall and strong winds. "This is what is happening more and more often in the Mediterranean," Costa said on Facebook. "Global warming will destroy our planet if we do not immediately reverse the direction."

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