Only two weeks ago I walked along the canals in Venice, marvelling at its construction, soaking up its historic atmosphere and revelling in being in one of Unesco’s World Heritage sites. I sat drinking Aperol spritzer in a canal side café during a four day stay. Now, it’s been hit with the highest tides for 50 years and is flooded. Beautiful Venice, with its unbelievably intricate renaissance buildings, is underwater. Sewage and drowned rats are floating in the city's pungent alleyways.
On Tuesday evening, November 12th, water ripped through the historic Italian city, beaching gondolas, trashing hotels and sending tourists fleeing through rapidly rising waters. Officials, of course, blamed climate change. Shopkeepers blamed it on corrupt authorities.
As the exceptionally intense "acqua alta," or high waters, peaked at 1.87 metres (6ft), stranded tourists were forced to wade through rapidly rising waters in the dark in search of safety as the flood alarm rang out.
Environment Minister, Sergio Costa, blamed climate change and the "tropicalisation" of violent rainfall and strong winds. "This is what is happening more and more often in the Mediterranean," Costa said on Facebook, AFP quoted. "Global warming will destroy our planet if we do not immediately reverse the direction."
In the meantime, traders on the Grand Canal raged against those who had failed to protect the city from the high tide. They said corruption had repeatedly delayed a barrier protection system which could have prevented the disaster.
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, according to AFP.
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 six billion euros. The politicians should all be put in jail," said local, Dino Perzolla, 62.
- 'Warnings ignored' –
As winds whipped the waves on the famed St Mark’s Square, transformed into a lake, the waters surged into the Basilica with a force "never seen before, not even in the 1966 flood," said Carlo Alberto Tesserin, First Procurator of St Mark’s Basilica, referring to the flood just over 50 years ago that reached 1.94 metres.
Italy's culture minister, Dario Franceschini, said on Tuesday November 12th, that the government would cough up an as-yet unspecified amount of funding to help preserve the site in the UNESCO city.
"The experts gave us ample warning. They weren't listened to," the procurator said.
The city stands on wooden piles driven by their thousands into the mud, but rising sea levels and heavy cruise ship traffic have eaten away at the surrounding marshes and mudbanks. With the gradually sinking Serenissima more vulnerable to the whims of the Adriatic Sea, the city has banned large cruise ships from entering its historic centre.
Tesserin said he was "very worried," as "every day there's a risk of a big flood." He added, "We either need the MOSE to work, but we need to know immediately if it will, or we need another plan…
“There's another high tide tonight, and more forecast for the coming days. For Venice to survive we need to act now," he said, AFP reported.
-Extensive Damage -
The President of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, said 80% of the city had been submerged, causing "unimaginable damage". St Mark’s Square is in one of the lowest parts of the city and took the brunt of the flooding, with dirty sewage water swirling around marble tombs inside the 12th century crypt of St Mark's Basilica.
The Basilica has suffered untold damage. Pumps are working overtime to clear the seawater from around the altar and under the pink and white stone arches, as the historic monument's custodians looked on in sadness and anger.
"We're talking about millions of euros worth of damage," said Tesserin, who is also the president of a team responsible for managing the historic site
"We said last year that the Basilica had aged 20 years in a high tide. It risks having aged much more than that in this one," he told AFP.
Warnings a year ago about potential damage from increasingly high tides "went unheeded," he said. "The damage we see now is nothing compared to that within the walls. The salt enters the marble, the bricks, everywhere," Tesserin said.
"The city is on its knees," Venice mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, said in an interview with national broadcaster RAI. " In all likelihood the damage from last night runs into hundreds of millions of euros (dollars)."
Around 160 fire fighters were deployed to rescue people stranded on jetties, and to recover boats broken free from their moorings. The fire brigade said it had carried out over 400 operations, as well as laying on extra boats as water ambulances.
So far there has been only one reported death. A 78-year old was killed by electric shock as