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World

Historic Floodwaters Devastate The Italian City Of Venice

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Venice, water is part of the city's charm; it is also its greatest threat. Historic flooding from three massive tides in just one week has submerged Venice in several feet of water. Officials even had to close St. Mark's Square, as city leaders scrambled to minimize the damage to the city's landmarks and artifacts. NPR senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli is in Venice and joins us. Hi Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi there, David.

GREENE: So what does it look like there?

POGGIOLI: Well, today, the usual scene of storekeepers and residents mopping up and trying to air their very damp buildings. Yesterday, I arrived at the peak of high tide. Water bus service was halted, and the water was too high for my rubber boots to walk to my hotel. I was very lucky to find a water taxi.

But to give you a visual idea of rising sea levels, I couldn't get into the motorboat from the - into the motorboat from the taxi pier because the boat deck was just too high. The taxi had to move to a higher pier so that I could climb down into the boat. And as you said, St. Mark's Square was closed because the elevated walkways were underwater. After the high water peak, I went out, and here's what it sounds like to walk through water that's midcalf high.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWISHING WATER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

POGGIOLI: And it wasn't until midevening that St. Mark's Square, Venice's lowest point, was fully emptied.

GREENE: Wow. It sounds like swimming, not walking.

POGGIOLI: (Laughter) Yeah.

GREENE: I mean, tides - these tides are not that unusual. Water, obviously, is, like, a central part of life there. But it sounds like this really has taken this into a different direction for people.

POGGIOLI: Yeah. Yesterday was the city's record third exceptional tide in one week. Last Tuesday's, 6 feet, 1 inch tide was the worst in 53 years. Venetians are used to acqua alta, high water, especially in November. But a century ago, it was maybe seven times a year. Nowadays, it's more like 100 times.

Sixteen years ago, construction began on the MOSE Project, some 80 huge movable floodgates that should protect the city from high tides. It has already cost $5.5 billion in public funds, and Venetians are furious over the delays, cost overruns and lots of big corruption scandals. Here's what my water taxi driver Jacobo Santi (ph) said.

JACOBO SANTI: (Foreign language spoken).

POGGIOLI: "Certainly, the MOSE Project should have gone into operation by now. They've been working on it for years, and it's still not completed." Santi added, "That's outrageous."

GREENE: So the frustration is growing. I mean, Sylvia, for anyone who has been there, Venice is just a treasure. I mean, it's not just St. Mark's Basilica, but so many architectural landmarks. How significant is the damage from this?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's still very - it's too soon to calculate. There's a lot of concern, especially for the flooded crypt of St. Mark's Basilica. The Italian Culture Ministry has sent its experts to analyze the damage to the magnificent mosaic pavements and frescoes. You know, the visionaries who began building on this lagoon more than a thousand years ago used materials for the foundations that could withstand water, but with the seabed sinking and rising sea levels, brick and marble walls are being corroded by salt, and water-logged buildings could crumble.

I visited one of the city's iconic bookstores. It's called Acqua Alta. It was devastated. There's still lots of water there. But the owner told me that lots of young people have come to volunteer from all over Italy. It's reminiscent of what happened in 1966, when Venice and Florence suffered record flooding that devastated many artistic masterpieces. This latest flood could have inspired a new generation of what were known as the angels of mud.

GREENE: Oh, wow. NPR's senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli in Venice. Sylvia, thanks so much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE END OF THE OCEAN'S "DESIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.