By Saphora Smith, Erin McLaughlin and Mac William Bishop
VENICE, Italy — Even as they started to pick through the destruction wrought by unusually high tides earlier this week, Venetians on Thursday braced for more devastating flooding.
The tide is predicted to reach almost 5 feet Friday — less than the 6 feet 2 inches it hit Tuesday, but still exceptionally high.
And much damage has already been done, with salty seawater seeping into centuries-old brickwork, floorboards and countless other nooks and crannies. The prospect of mopping up, wringing out and putting their lives back together again is a daunting one for many Venetians who, while used to flooding, were not prepared for the onslaught.
“We went away for two days and what happens is that six years of sacrifice and work and love for what we’re doing was just washed away in a flood,” Valencia Colomo said, sloshing around her antiques art store in knee-high rubber boots and waders. “We’ve come back to nothing.”
Colombo’s store wares sit partly submerged in a few inches of remaining seawater, the force of which smashed apart furniture, carried away stock and somehow managed to move the location of the property’s stairs.
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This New Orleans native and her husband, Giancarlo, are not alone in their dismay.
The water level was two inches shy of matching the highest levels on record — the devastating 6 feet 4 inches surge of November 1966.
Floods like these pose an almost existential question to Venetians. How can they protect their city for generations to come?
It’s a question that plays upon the mind of Pierpaolo Campestrini, director of the Lagoon Research Consortium, which looks into problems facing the Venetian lagoon.
“We need a protection system for all of Venice,” Campestrini said as he showed NBC News where water poured into the crypt of the Basilica di San Marco, the most famous of Venice’s countless churches.
The salt water, he said, did immeasurable damage to the brickwork and accelerated its aging.
"In one single day, we lost 20 years," he said.
Following the 1966 flood, the Italian government asked engineers to draw up plans to build a barrier at sea to defend the city from the constant threat of high tides. But fast forward to 2019 and engineers of the project are now predicting the sea defense system will go on line at the end of 2021.
Campestrini said it was his generation’s job to ensure that jewels such as the Basilica di San Marco, which dates back to the 11th century, survive for generations to come.
“This is our role and our commitment,” he said. “Our generation must be capable of solving this problem, we went to the moon. We have to also save Venice from flooding.”
Saphora Smith reported from London. Erin McLaughlin and Mac William Bishop reported from Venice.
Saphora Smith is a London-based reporter for NBC News Digital.
Erin McLaughlin is an NBC News correspondent.
Mac William Bishop
Mac William Bishop is a London-based multimedia producer covering international news.