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The crypt of St. Mark’s Basilica, a cornerstone of Venice’s historic district, was under three feet of water Wednesday, according to authorities. In its 1,200-year history, the landmark had flooded five times. Wednesday marked the sixth.
The flooding in Venice, the worst in more than 50 years, submerged about 85% of the canal-lined city, by some estimates. At least two people have died, as parts of Venice were under up to 6 feet of water due to a combo of high winds and a full-moon tide.
Tables and chairs floated down the streets, forcing popular cafes and tourist spots to close, and all the city’s schools had shut down. But many Venetians, scrambling to move their belongings to higher ground, still waded through the knee-high water.
Another round of exceptionally high tides are expected on Thursday.
“I found people in tears because they had lost everything,” the mayor of Venice Luigi Brugnaro said at a news conference, according to the New York Times. “If we don’t want the city to be abandoned, we have to give certain answers. It’s not just about quantifying the damages but about the future of this city.”
The vaporetto, the city’s boat-based public transportation system, is also out of commission after a number of the vaporetti wound up beached on walkways. The city was expecting hundreds of millions of euros in damages from the floods, and the Venetian mayor called on the Italian government to support the recovery efforts.
Venice, known as the “city of water,” regularly faces unusually high tides, called “acqua alta,” that rise up from the Adriatic Sea. But under normal circumstances, the high tides only cover the streets in a few inches of water.
Venice has only experienced worse flooding one other time: in 1966, when floodwaters left thousands homeless and submerged the Doge’s Palace in St. Mark’s Square under nearly five feet of water.
Just last year, the city faced another round round of historic floods — then the worst in a decade. Fueled by high winds that elevated the tides five feet above sea level, that bout of severe weather left 11 people dead.
“These are the effects of climate change,” the Brugnaro tweeted late Tuesday, along with a video of himself wading through the city’s flooded streets. He declared a state of emergency on Wednesday.
One project, which has been in the works for the last two decades, could alleviate the city’s chronic flooding — if it’s ever completed. MOSE is a seawall barrier that consists of 78 mechanical gates to rise up with the tides and protect the city. Originally called Project Moses, after the guy who famously parted the Red Sea, the project began construction in 2003, but it’s still not done.
The hugely ambitious project has also been mired in scandal. The former mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, was arrested for allegedly taking bribes from contractors on the project in 2014 (though he was eventually exonerated).
“For now, MOSE is a ghost,” Brugnaro said, according to the New York Times. But he pledged on Twitter to advance its construction in the hopes of sparing the city from the flooding that a hotter planet is sure to bring to Venice.
As flooding has become increasingly frequent in the city over the last several decades, Venetians are leaving in droves. The population is down to its lowest levels since the 1950s — and people are still fleeing.
“If Venice dies, the country dies,” the mayor said at a press conference.
Cover image: Tourists take pictures in a flooded St. Mark's Square, in Venice, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)