Venice suffered its second-highest tide on record, threatening its fragile lagoon and Renaissance buildings, as Mayor Luigi Brugnaro prepared to declare a state of emergency and said climate change is menacing the historic maritime city.

The flood waters, peaking at 187 centimeters (74 inches) above their benchmark and the highest since 1966, will have a lasting impact on the city, Brugnaro warned. “These are the effects of climate change,” he said in a Twitter post.

“It’s a tragedy of a lifetime,” said Nicola Ussi, a 41-year-old shop clerk. “The city is showing how fragile it is.”

With traditional industries abandoning the area, Italy’s development ministry has declared the Venice region in industrial crisis. Critics charge that authorities have made too many concessions to the tourist industry at the expense of sustainable environmental policies that could shield the city from flooding.

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Wind and high water brought a water taxi to the Calle delle Rasse near Piazza San Marco on November 13, 2019 in Venice, Italy. (Bloomberg News)

A 2017 report by the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development warned that Venice will be underwater within a century if climate change isn’t slowed and adequate defenses aren’t put in place.

The damage in Venice comes in the wake of a week of extreme weather throughout the country. Three southern regions were on maximum storm alert as heavy winds, rain and hail hit the area.

Crops and roads were damaged across Italy, and civil protection authorities advised drivers to avoid coastal roads. Schools closed in some regions, and streets were flooded in Rome and near Milan, with more rain and snow forecast over the next week.

Brugnaro called the situation in his city “dramatic,” as St. Mark’s Square in the heart of the city was submerged and people waded through the streets in knee-deep water. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will visit the city Wednesday afternoon, Radiocor news agency reported.


Last year saw 121 days of high tides in Venice. Floods regularly wreak damage on lower floors of homes, restaurants and shops, as what was once a winter phenomenon has begun to happen more frequently.

Historic floods in 1966 in both Venice and Florence led to the foundation of the U.K.-based Venice in Peril charity and sparked an international fund-raising effort to save churches and works of art. Water levels in Venice this week reached their highest since that landmark event, Corriere della Sera reported.

A plan to build a system of mobile gates just outside the city’s lagoon to protect it from the impact of the surging Adriatic is already way over budget at 5.5 billion euros ($6.1 billion) and counting.

The project, dubbed MOSE, is also behind schedule, and won’t be ready until at least 2022. Inspections found that hinges submerged since works began are already corroded. Some gates won’t rise, others won’t retract due to accumulated sediment. Structural damage has even been blamed on colonies of local mussels.

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Wind brought a gondolier jetty in to Piazza San Marco on November 13, 2019 in Venice, Italy. Venice's second highest tide after 1966 has left two people dead and caused the Mayor to call a state of emergency.  (Bloomberg News) 

Locals point to reports that corruption played a part in the system’s delays, cost overruns and technical failings, a view that confirms Venetians’ suspicion and resentment of money flowing in that’s passing them by.

“MOSE has been a useless project,” Ussi said. “That should have been clear already 15 or 20 years ago.”

The official Twitter account of the City of Venice public transportation company Azienda Veneziana della Mobilita SpA and members of the public were using the Italian hashtag #acquaalta to post updates about the situation on social media. “Acqua alta” translates to flood waters in English.

The incident is the latest in a slew of environmental disasters to occur as evidence of climate change emerges around the world. Earlier this week, more than 70 fires raged across New South Wales in Australia, damaging property and killing people.

--With assistance from Cormac Mullen and Chiara Remondini.