Italian govt set to declare state of emergency in Venice

People walk across the flooded St. Mark’s square, with St. Mark’s basilica and the Bell Tower in background, after an exceptional overnight “Alta Acqua” high tide water level, on Nov. 13, 2019 in Venice. (TNS photo)

VENICE, Italy (AP) — Italy’s government is preparing to declare a state of emergency in flood-ravaged Venice, aiming to swiftly secure repair funding for the historic lagoon city after the highest tide in 50 years.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte described the flooding as “a blow to the heart of our country.”

He said a cabinet meeting Thursday afternoon will declare a state of emergency and approve the first measures aimed at helping the city recover.

Conte spent Wednesday night in Venice, where world-famous monuments, homes and businesses were hit hard by the exceptional flooding. The water reached 1.87 meters (6 feet, 1 inch) above sea level Tuesday, the second-highest level ever recorded in the city.

That was just 7 centimeters (2½ inches) lower than the historic 1966 flood. Another wave of exceptionally high water followed Wednesday. The flooding was caused by southerly winds that pushed a high tide, exacerbated by a full moon, into the city.

Rising sea levels because of climate change coupled with Venice’s well-documented sinking make the city built amid a system of canals particularly vulnerable. The sea level in Venice is 10 centimeters (4 inches) higher than it was 50 years ago, according to the city’s tide office.

Venice’s mayor said the damage this week is estimated at “hundreds of millions of euros.”

“Venice is on its knees,’’ Mayor Luigi Brugnaro said earlier this week on Twitter. “St. Mark’s Basilica has sustained serious damage, like the entire city and its islands.”

One death was blamed on the flooding, on the barrier island of Pellestrina. A man in his 70s was apparently electrocuted when he tried to start a pump in his dwelling.

In Venice, the crypt beneath St. Mark’s Basilica was inundated for only the second time in its history. Damage was also reported at the Ca’ Pesaro modern art gallery, where a short circuit set off a fire, and at the La Fenice theater, where authorities turned off electricity as a precaution after the control room was flooded.

Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, said no damage had been reported to art collections in museums throughout the city. Many sites remained closed to tourists, and La Fenice canceled concerts Wednesday and Thursday evening.

Tourists floated suitcases through St. Mark’s Square, where officials removed walkways to prevent them from drifting away. Wooden boards that shop and hotel owners had placed on their doors in previous floods couldn’t hold back the water.

The water was so high that nothing less than thigh-high boots afforded protection. One man was even filmed swimming bare-chested in the city’s iconic St. Mark’s Square.

“I have often seen St. Mark’s Square covered with water,’’ Venice’s patriarch, Monsignor Francesco Moraglia, told reporters. “Yesterday there were waves that seemed to be the seashore.”

Brugnaro called the fallout catastrophic.

“We are not just talking about calculating the damages, but of the very future of the city,’’ Brugnaro told reporters, speaking of “untold damages to houses, shops, activities, not to mention monuments and works of art. We risked our lives as well.”

The damages included five ferries that serve as water buses, a critical means of transportation. Photos on social media showed taxi boats and gondolas grounded on walkways that flank the canals.

Brugnaro blamed climate change for the “dramatic situation” and called for a speedy completion of a long-delayed project to construct offshore barriers.

Called “Moses,” the moveable undersea barriers are meant to limit flooding. But the project, which has been opposed by environmentalists concerned about damaging the delicate lagoon ecosystem, has been delayed by cost overruns and corruption scandals. No launch date for it has yet been set.

Luca Zaia, governor of the Veneto region, told SkyTG24 that the barriers were almost complete but it wasn’t clear if they would work against such flooding.

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