VENICE: Another exceptional high tide swamped flood-hit Venice on Friday, prompting the mayor to order St Mark’s square closed after Italy declared a state of emergency for the UNESCO city.
Luigi Brugnaro ordered the iconic square closed as the latest sea surge struck with strong storms and winds battering the region.
It reached a high of 1.54 metres just before midday — lower than Tuesday’s peak but still dangerous.
“I’m forced to close the square to avoid health risks for citizens… a disaster,” Brugnaro said.
Churches, shops and homes in the city of canals have been inundated by unusually intense “acqua alta”, or high water, which on Tuesday hit their highest level in half a century.
“We’ve destroyed Venice, we’re talking about one billion (euros) in damage and that’s just from the other day, not today,” Brugnaro said, as far-right leader Matteo Salvini joined the list of politicians to visit the stricken city.
The crisis, driven by bad weather, has prompted the government to release 20 million euros ($22 million) in funds to tackle the devastation.
Before it was closed, tourists had been larking around in the flooded St Mark’s Square in the sunshine during breaks from the rain, snapping selfies in neon plastic boots.
“It’s shocking to see this, having water up to your knees,” Mexican tourist Oscar Calzada, 19, told AFP Friday.
“You have to be here to believe it and hopefully it won’t happen again, it’ll only be once-in-a-lifetime type thing.”
Surveying the damage, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini warned the task of repairing the city would be huge.
“We need to understand the enormous damage to the cultural heritage,” Franceschini said in a statement Friday.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who has called the flooding “a blow to the heart of our country”, declared the emergency on Thursday.
Residents whose houses have been hit are eligible for up to 5,000 euros in immediate government aid, while restaurant and shop owners can receive up to 20,000 euros and apply for more later.
Mayor Brugnaro on Friday also announced the opening of a bank account for people in Italy and around the world who want to contribute to the historic city’s repair.
“Venice is everyone’s heritage, unique in the world. Thanks to your help, Venice will shine once more,” he said.
Locals, meanwhile, remained defiant.
Many stopped for their usual coffees at flooded bars, drinking espresso while standing in several inches of water.
However, some hotels reported that international bookings had already begun to suffer, with some guests cancelling their rooms after seeing images of Venice underwater.
Like many of the city’s cultural institutions, Venice’s Guggenheim museum had planned to reopen on Friday but changed its mind “due to the significant worsening of the weather conditions”.
Climate change warning
Tuesday’s high waters submerged around 80 percent of the city, officials said.
Only once since records began in 1923 has the water crept even higher, reaching 1.94 metres in 1966.
“It makes me question what Venice is going to be like in 50 years,” California student David Melendez, 20, told AFP Friday.
“Hopefully this beautiful city can survive and our sons and grandsons can see it.”
Many, including Venice’s mayor, have blamed the disaster on global warming and warned that Italy — a country prone to natural disasters — must wake up to the risks posed by ever more volatile seasons.
“We need a policy that looks at the climate through completely different eyes,” Environment Minister Sergio Costa said Thursday.
The Serenissima, as the floating city is called, is home to a mere 50,000 residents but receives 36 million global visitors each year.
A massive infrastructure project has been under way since 2003 to protect the city, but it has been plagued by cost overruns, corruption scandals and delays.
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 it caused worrying vibrations and engineers discovered it had rusted.
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