Italy Declares State of Emergency in Venice After High Tides

November 15, 2019 Updated: November 15, 2019

ROME—Italy’s government declared a state of emergency on Nov. 14 in flood-ravaged Venice, seeking to release funds to repair the historic lagoon city after it was damaged by the highest tide in 50 years.

A cabinet meeting approved a special decree that included 20 million euros ($21.7 million) in immediate financial aid aimed at helping the city recover.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte described the flooding as “a blow to the heart of our country,” after spending the night of Nov. 13 in Venice, where world-famous monuments, homes, and businesses were hit hard by the exceptional flooding.

Venice’s mayor said the damage is estimated at “hundreds of millions of euros.” Mayor Luigi Brugnaro blamed climate change for the “dramatic situation” in the historical city and called for the speedy completion of the city’s long-delayed Moses flood defense project.

The water levels reached 1.87 meters (over 6 feet, 1 inch) above sea level on Nov. 12, the second-highest level ever recorded in the city and just 7 centimeters (2½ inches) lower than the historic 1966 flood. Another wave of exceptionally high water followed Nov. 13.

The exceptional flooding was caused by southerly winds that pushed a high tide, exacerbated by a full moon, into the city.

Although the waters have fallen from the peak reached late Nov. 12, St. Mark’s Square remained partially flooded on Nov. 14, and a new peak water level is expected for the morning of Nov. 15.

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 the electricity as a precaution after the control room was flooded.

Venice Archbishop Francesco Moraglia said St. Mark’s Basilica had suffered “irreparable damage,” with salty water posing risks to its mosaics, columns, and pavements.

Venice for years has been struggling with unwieldy numbers of tourists, the constant deterioration of its fragile lagoon environment, and a dwindling population.

Nov. 12’s devastating floods have reignited a yearslong debate about Moses, a multibillion-euro flood defense project that has been under construction since 2003. The project has not yet been activated, after being delayed a number of times due to corruption scandals, cost overruns, and environmentalists’ opposition in anticipation of effects on Venice’s lagoon ecosystem.

Italian Infrastructure and Transport Minister Paola De Micheli pledged on Nov. 14 that the Moses project will be completed by 2021.

Venice’s well-documented sinking makes the northeastern Italian city built amid a system of canals particularly vulnerable to the elements. The sea level in Venice is 10 centimeters (4 inches) higher than it was 50 years ago, according to the city’s tide office.

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

By Giada Zampano