Image: Tourists and residents in Venice
Luigi Costantini  /  AP
Tourists and locals walk along raised wooden walkways in Venice on Tuesday after strong southern winds pushed the Adriatic Sea into the Venice lagoon, submerging parts of the city.
updated 12/4/2008 2:29:45 PM ET 2008-12-04T19:29:45

The luxury Bauer hotel was inundated by calls of concern and cancellations this week — but was spared the floodwaters that swamped most of the city.

Though just a few steps from the city's lowest point — St. Mark's Square — the Bauer and other Venetian businesses kept the waters at bay using metal barriers to block doorways.

It's a lesson that may help wash away remaining resistance to an elaborate project to build mobile barriers that will prevent flooding from reaching Venice and its artistic treasures.

Monday's deluge — Venice's biggest in 22 years — has caused yet-uncalculated damage and scared away tourists who are the lifeblood of the city's economy. Francesca Bortolotto Possati, the Bauer's owner, said people around the world responded to the flood "like it was a tsunami."

The project named after Moses
While Venetians take floods in their stride, the swirling waters that burst the banks of the city's famed canals have convinced many here of the wisdom of a euro4.3 billion ($5.43 billion) project to build towering metal gates designed to protect Venice from being deluged.

Moses, named after the Old Testament figure who parted the Red Sea, is nearly half finished and is expected to be operational by 2014 — two years behind schedule due to financial problems.

If the retractable gates had been working at the time of the 160 centimeter (60 inch) floods, they would have been raised from their resting place on the seafloor by 6 a.m. — "keeping the entire city dry," according to the consortium administrating Moses.

"Since the floods, people keep stopping me and asking me when the barriers will be completed. They say, 'Don't slow down, don't be late,'" Flavia Faccioli, spokeswoman for the New Venice consortium.

On Monday, with the tide forecast to reach 130 centimeters (51 inches), city officials issued a series of alarms at 6:30 a.m. that reached thousands of citizens via text message, telephone, fax and siren. New alarms came every time the forecast rose.

"Already Sunday night the forecast was for 120 centimeters (47 inches), which means flooding in 35 percent of the city. That alone was a signal for me to be alert. And those who were, sustained minor damages," said Paolo Canestrelli, the director of the city's tidal monitoring office.

But Bortolotto Possati, a third-generation Venetian, said flood warnings, even at 120 centimeters (47 inches), have become so common that Venetians shrug them off.

Transport strike complicates problem
A transport strike on Monday exacerbated the emergency for the many business owners who live on the mainland: There was no way to reach their stores to erect barriers and remove goods off floors and lower shelves.

St. Mark's Square floods when the tide reaches just 80 centimeters (31.5 inches). Because of the risk, city officials have ensured that Venice's artistic treasures are protected from floods up to 2 meters (6.6 feet) by keeping them above that level.

Moses would be raised when the tide reaches 110 centimeters (43 inches), which happens on average four times a year, for a total of 55 times in the last decade, officials said.

Venice has experienced only three floods worse than Monday's since 1923. And the rarity of truly damaging waters submerging 90 percent of the city — 12 since 1936 — has become an argument for the anti-barrier camp.

"The exceptional events happen once every 15 to 20 years. Is it worth doing such a huge and irreversible project to stop water every once in 20 years?" said Luciano Mazzolin of the No Moses Committee.

Venice has sought protection from flooding for centuries.

Venice more vulnerable now
Floods during the first millennium were generally caused by the two main rivers that empty into the lagoon, not by the sea. The sea became the main problem only after passages were dredged to allow modern ships into the port in the 1800s.

Venice has become even more vulnerable over the last century as it sank a full 23 centimeters (9 inches) due to the combined effect of rising water levels and settling of the land.

One of the main factors behind the floods is the scirocco winds that arrive from the south and hit landfall exactly at Venice's position.

With climate change, Venice could see an increase of these very high tides and their intensity, said Fabio Trincardi, a geologist who directs Italy's Institute of Marine Sciences.

Trincardi said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that the oceans could rise 50 centimeters (20 inches) by the end of the century, which could spell repeated disasters for Venice and other low-lying areas of the world.

"Once the sea starts off from an additional 50 centimeters, even a minor high tide increase becomes catastrophic," he said in a telephone interview.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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