85% of Venice underwater after worst flooding in 50 years

Venice's mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, said the city was "on its knees."

Image source: Barcroft Media / Getty
  • About 85 percent of Venice was underwater on Tuesday, with water levels reaching more than 6 feet deep at some points.
  • Venice's mayor said the unusually strong flooding was caused by climate change, estimating the damage to be in the hundreds of millions of Euros.
  • Venice's MOSE engineering project aims to protect Venice from rising seas, but some say it won't help the city stay above water.


Severe flooding in Venice has left at least two people dead and the city in a state of emergency. On Tuesday, strong storms caused the tide to rise to its highest level in 50 years, flooding roughly 85 percent of the city in waters up to 6 feet deep at some points.

Venice's mayor Luigi Brugnaro said the city was "on its knees." In videos posted online, store windows are submerged underwater, people walk around in knee-deep water, and the flooding comes up to the turnstiles at St. Mark's Basilica, marking the sixth time it's flooded in 1,200 years.

Italian media reported that one man had been electrocuted while using an electric pump, and the body of a second man had been discovered.

Flooding is not a new phenomenon in the "city of water". In the past, the tides in Venice would regularly rise twice a year, in the late fall and early spring. (These periods are known locally as the "acqua alta".) But flooding has become more severe and more frequent in recent decades, posing an existential threat to Venice, which some climate experts predict will be underwater by the end of the century. (It also doesn't help that the city is sinking at a rate of one-fifth of an inch per year.)

Mayor Brugnaro said the flooding was caused by climate change, estimating the damage to be in the hundreds of millions of Euros. Italy's minister of culture, Dario Franceschini, said the government would provide funding to help preserve the Unesco world heritage site.

MOSE

To save Venice from rising seas, the government has begun MOSE, a massive project that involves building mobile gates and barriers designed to temporarily isolate the lagoon city from the nearby Adriatic Sea during high tides. Brugnaro suggested that, if completed, the project would have softened the blow from this week's flooding, a position he also expressed after a 2018 flood.

"We need resources and clear ideas," he said. "For now, MOSE is a ghost. We want to see it finished."

But critics of the project, one of the largest civil engineering pursuits in the world, have expressed concern about corruption charges, design flaws, and environmental costs. The project is expected to be operational in 2022.

"Built centuries ago on tiny islands, the city has always been subject to flooding," said NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. "An ambitious project of movable undersea barriers called MOSE is yet unfinished due to cost overruns and corruption scandals. Experts say once completed, it will be insufficient to deal with rising sea levels."
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