Venice suffers its worst floods for 53 years. My assessment, an update on the MOSE mobile dams and comments about the causes and responses on Euronews

On the night of 12 November 2019, over 80 per cent of Venice was flooded. The reading on the city’s tide gauge reached 187 cm, which was the highest level recorded since November 1966 when 100 per cent of the city was flooded and a level of 194 cm was recorded on the tide gauge.

The worst damage was on the littoral island of Pellestrina, where one person died of natural causes and an elderly man died due to an electrical problem with a pump. Indeed, pumping flood waters was a significant problem on this island. Other coastal areas of the Venice region also experienced flooding and damage, including Chioggia, Jesolo and Caorle.

In Venice city centre, St. Mark’s Church was flooded and there are concerns about damage to the crypt. La Fenice theatre also experienced flooding, but in its control room and not the theatre itself. Schools and university facilities were closed on 13 November. Three water buses sank and one floated onto the bank of a canal close to buildings. Boats and docking platforms were damaged throughout the lagoon due to high winds of 100 km per hour and a tornado close to St. Mark’s Square. Many of the walking boards that are often used above flooded areas were swept away by high waters. Fires also broke out due to electrical problems on the Lido and at Ca’ Pesaro Museum, but were put out.

Early estimates of the costs of damage were hundreds of millions of Euros but more precise details will take time to assess. On 13 November, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited the city and on 14 November the government issued a decree of a state of emergency and earmarking 20 million Euros to support Venice and its population. More flooding is forecast over the next few days, but not at levels equal to those on 12 November.

On 15 November. tides reached 154 cm on the tide gauge at 11.26 am. St. Mark’s Square was closed and schools were closed for the third day in a row. Public water buses, the main form of transport. were suspended. Burano and Chioggia also had very high levels of flooding on the same day. Then on 17 November, tides were set to reach 160 cm and the day before the famous and iconic Caffe Florian, which opened in 1720 on St. Mark’s Square, announced it was closing after suffering from flood damage.

While the situation is serious for local people, improved flood defences have made the impact of these floods less dramatic than during the autumn of 1966. For sure, the statement by the Governor of the Veneto Region, Luca Zaia, that Venice faces “apocalyptic devastation” is fear mongering. In reality, most Venetians are coping, as they have learnt to do over many years. Yet they were not helped to prepare for the level of flooding on 12 November by underestimates of how high the tides would be. Many Venetians have suffered damage to their properties and boats and any help that can be offered is welcome. Moreover, the costs to churches, businesses. gondola owners and transport organisations is likely to be significant.

The floods would have been tamed if the MOSE mobile dams had been completed. The dams were designed to protect Venice and its lagoon from tides of up to 3 metres (9.8 ft) high. As previously explained on this blog and in my book, these dams began construction in 2003 and were due to be completed in 2011. They have been delayed due to environmental objections, technical and funding problems, frequent changes of government and a corruption scandal in 2014. They are now 94 per cent completed. The earliest they are estimated to be fully functioning is 2022.

On 14 November 2019, the government named former state property agency Demanio chief Elisabetta Spitz as the new extraordinary commissioner for the MOSE project and pledged it would be completed by the end of 2021. However, there are problems with rusting, leaking foundations and many parts already need to be replaced. A planned test of raising all the dams on 4 November 2019 was cancelled due to vibrations in the tubes connected to the dams where sea water is pumped in and out of the dams to lower and raise them. The body in charge of the MOSE project, the New Venice Consortium, stated on 15 November that tests will start next year and will be repeated every 45 days. So these problems need to be dealt with as a matter of urgency to protect most of the city. In addition, protection needs to be improved at other locations, especially on the littoral island of Pellestrina.

I explained the causes and the responses needed live on Euronews on the morning of 14 November 2019. A video of this interview can be viewed by clicking on the link below:

 

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