Waterlogged Venice reels from highest tide in 50 years

November 13, 2019, 2:38 p.m.
flooded St. Mark's Square in Venice
Photo: MARCO BERTORELLO / Contributor/Getty Images

Italy's sinking city is struggling after the highest tide in more than 50 years hit Venice on the night of Nov. 12. The "Alta Acqua" (high tide water) rolled in late Tuesday night, peaking at about six feet in the lowest point of the city. Since record-keeping began in 1923, only once has the water crept even higher, reaching just over six feet in 1966.

More than 85% of the city is submerged, with the mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, declaring a state of emergency and calling the flood "the result of climate change" on Twitter. Brugnaro also called the flooding "a wound that will leave indelible signs" and asked the government for help. The last flooding, in November 2018, caused an estimated $2.4 million in damage.

Around the city, locals and tourists struggled to escape the sewage-infested water. Water taxis entering the Grand Canal, where many of the historic hotels are located, found that the wooden gangways had been washed away, leaving tourists no choice but to hop in through the windows. Many guests on the ground floor of hotels had to be evacuated to higher floors as water swept through the lobby and electricity service was lost.

According to The Guardian, the governor of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, described a scene of "apocalyptic devastation," saying the city was "on its knees." Historic St. Mark's Square, the lowest point in the city, also suffered structural damage. "The art, the basilica, the shops and the homes, a disaster … Venice is bracing itself for the next high tide," Zaia added.

A canal in Venice is flooded after high tides A flooded embankment is surrounded by taxi boats on the Grand Canal channel. (Photo: MARCO BERTORELLO/Contributor/Getty Images)

Beyond blaming climate change, many Venetians are angry about how the city has been handling rising sea levels. A massive infrastructure project called MOSE, estimated at $6.5 billion, has been ongoing since 2003, but it has been plagued with corruption scandals, high costs and delays.

The project calls for 78 gates that can be raised to protect the lagoons during high tide, but a recent test caused concerning vibrations, and engineers discovered parts of the gate had rusted already. The latest reports predict that it will be ready by late 2020.

It's an attempt at a solution, but CityLab reported in 2018 that the barriers can keep away the water for only so long. Along with gradual sinking that occurs every year thanks to natural subsidence, global warming is causing the tides to get higher every year. "It’s obvious that MOSE is not a magic wand," Giovanni Cecconi, head of the Venice Resilience Lab, told CityLab. "But rather something that will allow us to take time to figure out and implement new ways to cope with a crisis."

Venice is also struggling with another rising tide: tourists. Visitors to the lagoon city are estimated at 25 million a year and projected to reach 38 million by 2025. Along with causing a housing affordability crisis and an impediment to locals' lives, tourists also bring in an inordinate amount of trash — which is a huge pain when you consider that all of Venice's trash and recycling must be ferried away on barges. Additionally, the unsightly views of enormous cruise ships docking in the heart of the city puts further stress on the UNESCO World Heritage site.

Italy has been hit by heavy rainfall in recent days, with widespread flooding also happening in the southern heel and toe of the country. More bad weather is forecasted for the coming days.