St. Mark’s Square reopens in Venice, but water remains high

VENICE, Italy — Tourists and residents were allowed back into St. Mark’s Square in Venice on Saturday, a day after it was closed due to exceptionally high tidal waters that swept through most of the lagoon city’s already devastated centre.

Despite sunny skies, the city remained on edge due to possibly more wind-propelled high tidal waters during the weekend. The city was struck Tuesday by devastating floods, the worst in decades.

Water rose up again in St. Mark’s Square on Saturday and the forecast for Sunday was worse. The tide peaked at 1.10 metres (3 feet, 7 inches) above sea level on Saturday at noon, leaving St. Mark’s inundated with more than 20 centimetres (8 inches) of water.

Late Tuesday, water levels in Venice reached 1.87 metres (6 feet, 1 inch) above sea level, the highest flooding since 1966. The forecast for Sunday was for the high water mark to reach 1.6 metres (5.2 feet) above sea level.

On Saturday, tourists sloshed through St. Mark’s Square and strolled across it on raised walkways. Many snapped photos of themselves standing in shallow water in front of St. Mark’s Square to document their presence during this exceptional high-water season. Museums filled up again with tourists and the city’s gondolas were back in business. But the city’s museums were expected to shut down on Sunday due to the threat of high water.

Luigi Brugnaro, the city’s mayor, estimated damages from the flooding would reach at least 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion). He said a final tally of the damage to homes, businesses, stores and the city’s rich cultural heritage would be done once the city dries out, according to Italian media.

“Venice is once again being watched by the world and it needs to show that it can succeed and pick itself back up,” the mayor said in an interview with the Gazzettino and Messaggero newspapers.

Brugnaro said Venice was setting up programs to help cover damages sustained by individuals and businesses, noting that families could expect up to 5,000 euros ($5,500) and businesses up to 20,000 euros ($22,000) in aid. He said businesses and individuals suffering even more serious losses could possibly qualify for aid covering up to 70% of damages.

Among those recovering from Tuesday’s devastating high waters was Sabrina Laggia and her husband. She was blowing dry stone jewelry made by her husband, Alfredo, in their workshop near St. Mark’s Square. She was dreading forecasts for more high water on Sunday.

“We have been here 30 years and we have never seen anything like this,’’ she said. “Lots of acqua alta, but never this high.” “Acqua alta” is the term Venetians use to describe flooding from wind-driven high tides.

Alfredo said they used to feel safe if the forecast said anything up to 1.4 metres (4.6 feet) – about the level they expected Tuesday night only to be surprised when it surged to 1.87 metres without warning.

He spent until 2 a.m. Tuesday in their store, named “Not Just Wine,” moving his creations to higher positions. But the water reached about 50 centimetres (19.6 inches) in height – well above the usual 10 centimetres to 15 centimetres (4 inches to 6 inches). Finally there was no place else to move objects in the tiny workshop.

The couple lost an air conditioner and a small soldering gun in the store and a washing machine at their home nearby.

Sabrina was rinsing her husband’s creations – which include filigree bags with velvet detailing and Swarovski crystal-encrusted masks – with fresh water and blowing them dry, but she was uncertain if what she was doing will really do the trick against the lagoon’s salt water.

An employee at another shop, Dorina Balku, was cleaning up Murano glass creations. They lost one large glass fish in the flood that is priced at over 3,000 euros ($3,300) and another large vase. While much of the glass could be cleaned, the jewelry made from the glass beads would have to be taken apart and remade to be salvaged because the fixtures had already corroded from the salty, briny water.

“What can we do? It happened. It is important that people are OK,’’ she said.

On Thursday, the government declared a state of emergency, approving 20 million euros ($22.1 million) to help Venice repair the most urgent damage.

Built on a series of tiny islets amid a system of canals, Venice is particularly vulnerable to a combination of rising sea levels due to climate change coupled with the city’s well-documented sinking into the mud. The sea level in Venice is 10 centimetres (4 inches) higher than it was 50 years ago, according to the city’s tide office.

The flooding has left Italians exasperated at the incompletion of the city’s long-delayed Moses flood defence project. Moses consists of a series of movable barriers in the lagoon that can be raised when high winds and high tides combine to threaten to send “acqua alta” rushing across the city.

Completion of the multibillion-euro project, under construction since 2003, has been delayed by corruption scandals, cost overruns and opposition from environmentalists worried about its effects on Venice’s delicate lagoon ecosystem.

“They need to finish the Moses tomorrow,’’ said Sabrina Laggia. “Not next year.”

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