Venetians woke yesterday to devastating scenes after the highest tide in 50 years washed through the historic Italian city, beaching gondolas, trashing hotels and sending tourists fleeing through rapidly rising waters.
Shopkeepers on the Grand Canal raged against those who have failed to protect the UNESCO city from the high tide, blaming corruption for the much-delayed barrier protection system which could have prevented the disaster.
“The city is on its knees,” Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro said in an interview with national broadcaster Radiotelevisione Italiana.
“There’s widespread devastation,” he said in the famed St Mark’s Square, which bore the brunt of the flooding.
Tourists lugging heavy suitcases waded in thigh-high galoshes or barefoot through the submerged alleys, as water taxi and gondola drivers baled sewage-tainted water out of their trashed vessels.
The exceptionally intense acqua alta (high waters) peaked at 1.87m. Only once since records began in 1923 has the water crept even higher, reaching 1.94m in the historic 1966 flood.
“It was unbelievable, the water rose so quickly,” said resident Tiziano Collarin, 59, as he surveyed the damage.
“Windows were blown out, there are those who have lost everything,” he said as the flood alarm rang out to warn those in the canal city that the tide, which had receded somewhat overnight, was coming in once again.
The fire brigade said it had carried out more than 250 operations as well as laying on extra boats as water ambulances.
About 150 fire fighters were deployed to rescue people stranded on jetties and to recover boats broken free from their moorings.
A 78-year old was killed by electric shock as the waters poured into his home, Italian media reported.
Veneto region President Luca Zaia said 80 percent of the city had been submerged, causing “unimaginable damage.”
German tourist Gabi Brueckner, 58, said the nighttime drama had been “horrifying”.
She echoed the mayor in blaming climate change and said she feared like many people that “it will get worse and at some point Venice will drown”.
A massive infrastructure project called MOSE has been underway 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.
“They’ve done nothing, neglected it. It doesn’t work and they have stolen 6 billion euros [US$6.6 billion]. The politicians should all be put in jail,” said local Dino Perzolla, 62.
St Mark’s Square was particularly affected, its vestibule inundated with water.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. There was a terrifying wind, it was a hurricane. It was horrible,” local Cristina said.
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