The high water in Venice on November 12, 2019 was the second highest ever and just short of the most severe incident in 1966. Water invaded up to 85% of the city of Venice, anywhere from a few inches of water to several feet. While Venice “floods’ frequently, this was an exceptional event, one that lifted heavy boats out of the water and even damaged the foundations of the ancient church of Saint Mark.
I’ve been checking in with my friends that live in and around Venice. Everyone is safe, but shaken. Some have had little damage and others have really suffered. I spoke with blogger and Venetian food expert Monica Ceserato about the ongoing situation in the city with regards to flooding.
Note: It isn’t exactly correct to refer to Venice as “flooding” but instead having had a “high water” or aqua alta. Aqua Alta defined in this article.
Also Note: This Q & A is not a verbatim conversation. We have a great time chatting and wander off topic and laugh a lot, even when we discuss serious things. In short, these answers are paraphrased (and sprinkle in a bit of an infectious laugh to hear Monica just the right way)
What is the current situation with Venice?
Nothing to be done yet, we are waiting for workers and for the high water to end. I’ve spoken to friends, all are telling visitors to wait until the weekend when the high water passes. Nobody is talking about this, but schools were closed so the kids were out and went around Venice to help people. They met in the morning, divided into small groups, helping older people clean up.
We are all annoyed with the politicians because they are milking the situation but these kids are actually helping.
The water went down and the sun was shining today, everyone is cleaning and crying their eyes out. Everyone is putting everything out to dry in the campo,shops are throwing stuff out. Rubbish collectors are taking tons of things away. Some businesses are reopening again, and some museums are opening again. Some are opening but the majority are closed. They have to try and open, even if it’s hard, because if they don’t they may never open again. A friend lost everything inside of her house, she’s been asking for help from friends. We are talking about the whole kitchen, appliances, the whole house. Some people were luckier than others, such as a friend that does glass, where things can be salvaged. But there is so much damage. A glass master’s furnace was flooded and now the furnace is ruined. Everyone can tell you a story of what was damaged.
I spoke to the opticians and they will try and open but any shops with equipment are hit harder than shops with merchandise. Equipment like ovens or refrigerators have been ruined by the water making work impossible for those people. Some places still don’t have reliable power. Everybody was affected, 80-85% of the city was affected, so there are not enough electricians to go around. Charitable groups are coming in to help museums.
Electricity is in bits, but a lot has been managed to be restored. From the point of view of the emergency services, I take my hat off to them because not one person can say they haven’t responded. We may complain about politicians or the rubbish service normally but this was done well. It was handled properly.
The problem we have is the tourists that are not behaving properly. 11 o’clock yesterday there were big tourist boats arriving in St Marks Square. People were cueing to go into museums but getting upset because the museums were closed. People were going around Burano even when the local people were trying to clean up. And people were taking photos, taking selfies. Tourists were swimming in the water, and this is what the media shows. It isn’t right, and not the image that we want out there of a disaster.
I stayed away from the city by choice, not because the mayor said to stay away. The problem is, you don’t want to tell people to stay away because it hurts business but the city needs time to recover, even a few days.
How does the city of Venice prepare for high water?
There is a system. There are sirens with different tones. The higher the pitch, the higher the water level. The problem is there were not enough pitches! It stops at 170 and there’s not a higher tone! People did not know to expect something so drastic. They should have let people know in the morning, they could have taken stuff away. Normally most people put barriers at the door and raise the furniture on blocks. Many people have pumps, but the water was so high this time that the electricity went out. The water got so high, you had water coming out of the sinks, toilets, wall sockets.
What happened to the MOSE, the water barrier being built to protect the city?
Ha! The what? First we have god-knows-how-many newspapers calling it the “Moses”, but it’s MOSE (an acronym for MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), nothing to do with the guy. It is really funny. It’s a project going on for 26 years. In the news, it was written that they can’t lift up the gates anymore, and it isn’t even completed. I remember reading a long time ago that the studies were that the MOSE would change the currents of the lagoon and make the aqua alta worse. And imagine with the winds of this week, it would have broken those gates if they had been working, causing a tsunami.
Even if you aren’t an engineer, you can see it wouldn’t work. The guy that pushed for this has been investigated for fraud and embezzlement, he was on national TV saying that if the MOSE was up, everything would have been fine. This is a guy who stole money from the project and bought apartments in Dubai!
I have read to the project is supposed to be done in 2022, but they recently found that the completed sections are encrusted with mussels and the hinges are corroded. Do you think it will even be completed or function?
I have the original article that was written in 1990 or something like that, and it says MOSE will be done 2003. So do you really think the project will be done in 2022 as they are saying? Even if it is finished, it will never work.
The money never got spent on it, if it did it would have been finished by now. All the work they’ve been doing, they’ve been cutting corners. You start with a project and use poor materials and of course it won’t work, but that seems to be the Italian way.
What’s happening now was foretold by engineers and scientists that were against it. It’s nothing new, they foretold it when the project was proposed.
Centuries ago, Venetians built muarzzi (stone embankments on the Lido island to reinforce the embankments) near Pelestrina, it’s been working for 300 years. A simple project that has been stopping the erosion of the lagoon. I’m pretty sure it didn’t cost as much as this thing.
What really bugs me, I wonder, you know in Venice they used to dredge canals around the city every 20-30 years. I wonder, since we’ve stopped doing this properly, if this had an extra effect on what is going on. If you try to fill a glass and its already half full, you can’t put the same amount of water in it, can you? So, it could be the maintenance of the lagoon adding to the problem. Many factors contribute. If you don’t take care of things, eventually they fall apart.
What are the main factors contributing to the high water?
High water has been here for centuries. It wasn’t so high in the past but the phase of the moon, tide coming in, the Scirocco (wind from Africa) and the Bora wind (wind from Slovenia) can create a typical aqua alta. This is the normal high tide. The exceptional high tide comes with the third wind, Libeccio, which doesn’t normally come, and also with lots of water from the mountains coming down the rivers into the lagoon, and then a high tide coming in. All of these things combined to create an exceptionally high water. The water has to go somewhere.
Because of the Libeccio (a violent wind from the southwest), it was causing something like a hurricane. I heard such howling outside of my windows, and the tide doesn’t’ usually come in that fast. I realized the depth went from 170cm to 187cm in 20 minutes. That’s what happens in Mont St Michel in France, they are used to it, but this does not happen on the Adriatic. It’s a relatively calm sea, and this was like a hurricane. For a wave to uplift a vaporetto (a Venetian water bus), or for a taxi boat to arrive in a calle, you have to realize how hard the wind was blowing, like the open ocean. The walls of houses were trembling. It was an extraordinary event.
People are upset because it should have been forecast. And it should have been. We used to have a proper office for this, but it’s been dismantled. And in the middle of what was happening, the electricity and phones went out, so the people with the tide and weather forecast couldn’t share that info.
How can people help from abroad? There are a few charities for sending money. Me, personally, I am so weary of people collecting money. How do you know if it goes to the right people? In Italy you never know. Buy from a Venetian shop online. Just share this story, let people know. If you come to visit, be respectful. Don’t go and take selfies. There was a group doing an orienteering event today, even while the locals were cleaning up!
When you eat, go to small Venetian restaurants. For Christmas, buy from small artisans, you know your money is going to the right people.
Rather than money, create awareness. Share this information. The problem is huge and complicated, public pressure for politicians to do something about this is the best way that people can help. The media isn’t doing that, they just post images of people swimming in the high water, and nobody takes it seriously. So sharing this information, that the Venetians need real help, that’s the best way to help the city. Get the word out.
I’ve had readers contact me to ask if they should cancel their trips to Venice. Is it still ok to come?
Yes, of course but they should bring boots! The most stupid thing to do is to tell people not to come. The city may not be what you expected, there may be damage. Don’t be upset if something you’ve booked isn’t exactly what it would have been. But invest in the locals who are keeping the city alive: churches, restaurants, artisans. Many places are even open now. People are trying to open and get back to business, because if they don’t they never will. Be understanding. People were annoyed because we had to cancel things. Tourists were upset that there weren’t restaurants open, but people need to be understanding. People should definitely come but be understanding.
Above all, keep in mind that between November and March, aqua alta happens. Come with proper waterproof shoes. You can always leave the shoes at your hotel or vacation rental.
Monica Cesarato is a blogger, chef, tour guide, and native Venetian. She runs fantastic food tours of Venice and writes prolifically about her city at https://www.monicacesarato.com/blog/
Here’s a clip of Monica and I chatting in October: