Venice could use a bailout. The city built on water has too much of it.
Residents and tourists waded through knee-deep water on Monday as they navigated the city’s narrow streets and alleys and its historic St. Mark’s Square was inundated. Boxes of tourist merchandise floated inside the flooded shops around the square and even the city’s famed pigeons sought refuge on rooftops and windowsills.
One of the highest tides in its history brought Venice to a virtual halt, rekindling a debate over a plan to build moveable flood barriers in an effort to save the lagoon city from high tides.
City officials said the tide peaked at 156cm, well past the 110cm flood mark, as strong winds pushed the sea into the city.
Alarms went off at 6:37am to alert citizens, but many residents were taken by surprise because authorities had initially not forecast such a high water level.
In St. Mark’s Square, one of the city’s lowest points, tourists tried to stay dry by hopping on cafe tables and chairs sticking out of the water. The water was so high that someone rowed a small speedboat across the wide square.
“It was quite an extraordinary experience,” said Michel Gorski, visiting from Brussels with his wife. “We got stuck in the hotel for half a day but we didn’t suffer. We were sorry for the restaurants and stores around, but there was no panic and everyone worked really hard to clean up quickly.”
Workers were unable to install the traditional raised wooden walkways used during flooding because the water rose so high the platforms would have floated away too.
It was the fourth-highest tide since 1872, when the city started keeping records. The last time Venice saw such high waters was in 1986, while the all-time record was 194cm in 1966.
That flood forced 3,000 people to evacuate and damaged many historic buildings, but largely spared the city’s art — which had long ago been removed to upper floors because of flooding by tides.
Giancarlo Galan, the conservative governor of the surrounding Veneto region, criticized Venice’s center-left administration for failing to prepare for the flood and for allegedly stonewalling a long-planned system of barriers that would rise from the seabed to ease the effect of high tides.
The US$5.5 billion project, called “Moses” after the Biblical figure who parted the Red Sea, has been under construction for years and is expected to be completed by 2011. The company building the barriers said that had the system been in place, the city would not have been flooded on Monday.