Venice fears exodus of residents after latest flood

Inhabitants are used to seasonal deluges but were not prepared for recent onslaughts, which plunged more than 80 percent of the city under water.

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By Saphora Smith and Yuliya Talmazan

As Venice counted its losses after devastating flooding reached near-record levels last week, many worried that increasingly frequent deluges are driving out the ancient city’s lifeblood: Venetians themselves.

Venice’s population has been falling for years already. Some 53,000 people live in its historic center, according to the Venice municipality. Taking births, deaths, immigration and emigration into account, the population shrank by 803 people last year alone.

The stress and strain of daily life in the lagoon city, plus the back-of-the-brain worry that your home or business is vulnerable to flooding, is causing some to reassess the practicalities of life in Venice, according to residents and experts.

“We’re concerned that some more people might decide to leave because living in Venice is really hard,” Venetian lawyer Marco Gasparinetti told NBC News.

People remove damaged goods from a street in Venice after flooding.Andrea Merola / ANSA via AP

It would not be the first time that the city’s population dwindled in the wake of severe flooding. In 1966, 6 feet 4 inches of water inundated the canal-crisscrossed city, causing widespread damage.

At the time of the flooding, 121,309 people resided in the city’s historic center. That number dropped to 102,269 a decade later and has been on a steady decline ever since.

It was unclear how many of those who left did so as a direct result of the flooding. Venetians said day-to-day challenges of life in the lagoon city, including rampant tourism, high living costs and lack of jobs and affordable housing, had also caused people to leave.

The last thing Gasparinetti wants to see is a repeat of what he describes as “the big exodus” when he says many people living on the ground floor of Venetian houses relocated to the mainland.

This concern was among the reasons why Gasparinetti founded a group, 25 Aprile, to encourage residents to stay in Venice and others from all over the world to move to the city.

“We have to do what the Venice republic did after the big pandemics,” Gasparinetti said. “They were telling everyone to join us: the Greeks, the Jewish people, the Romanians,” he said, ticking off people who could help boost Venice’s population.

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The city’s inhabitants are used to seasonal flooding - or acqua alta, meaning "high water" in Italian - but many said they were not prepared for last week’s onslaught which, at its peak, plunged more than 80 percent of the city underwater.

The tides paralyzed life, shutting down schools and some supermarkets.

The threat continued Sunday, as the city experienced another high tide that reached over four feet. Authorities warned that the tide will remain high over the course of next week.

But it is by no means the only difficulty of living in the historic center.

The city and its lagoon attract a whopping 30 million tourists a year dwarfing the resident population.

A man walks on a flooded street near Rialto Bridge.Filippo Monterforte / AFP - Getty Images

Paola Mar, Venice’s councilor for tourism, said the municipality was taking considerable steps to manage tourism, including banning new hotels and cruise ships from the historic center, as well as plans to introduce an “access fee” for day visitors.

“The challenge for the municipality is to find a balance between residents of Venice and tourists,” Mar said. “But we don’t want people to leave.”

Davide Montanari, 58, whose leather goods store in the city’s iconic St Mark’s Square was flooded last week admits he’s mulling it over.

"I'm seriously considering moving the business out of Venice," he told NBC News last week in the midst of the flooding.

Montanari said normally when there’s flooding, the water doesn’t breach the steps, but this year his store was flooded at least three times. “I’m tired of this,” he said.

Venetians’ frustration quickly turned into anger last week over the long delays in building a sea barrier to defend the city — still not completed more than 50 years after the government asked engineers to draw up plans.

"I have no faith in local or national governments to change anything," said Pier Giorgio Vedovato, 43, who owns a watch dealership in the city. "The Mose investment was a waste of billions through corruption and mismanagement," he added, referring to the sea barrier project.

And experts suggest flooding like this will only become more frequent.

Shouro Dasgupta, an environmental economist with the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change, said Venice has always struggled with flooding, but official records suggest it's getting worse.

From 1872 until 1950, there was only one severe flooding event in which water reached 140 centimeters (4 feet 7 inches) above sea level, also known as an "exceptional" high tide, Dasgupta said.

“Since 1951 until today, we have had 21 severe flooding events. Out of those 21, 13 have been since 2000 and out of those 13, eight have been since 2012," he said, adding that the week between Nov. 11 and 17 alone saw four "exceptional" high tides.

“Having four such events in one week is unprecedented, not just because of the severity of it, but also because they have been so frequent."

But despite the dreary predictions, many Venetians said they were not ready to quit the city.

Melissa Conn, an Ohio native who has lived in Venice for over three decades, said it was too early to tell if last week’s flooding would make people leave.

“I’ve been here for 31 years,” Conn said. “I am not ready to give up.”

Marie Ohanesian Nardin contributed.