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Three quarters of Venice just flooded while its costly flood gate sits unfinished

Venice faced severe flooding as high tide waters and blustery winds swamped landmarks and streets in the northern Italian city on Oct. 29. (Video: The Washington Post)
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A violent, strengthening windstorm in Europe mangled the Italian coast on Monday, tossing yachts like toys and generating the worst storm-surge flooding in a decade.

The storm, which has killed 10 people since Sunday, lashed Italy with 45-mph sustained winds. It intensified significantly as it tracked northeast into Central Europe, resembling a powerful wintertime storm. In Venice, strong winds blowing onshore from the Mediterranean generated a five-foot storm surge. The surge flooded 77 percent of Venice, according to city officials.

The water climbed above raised sidewalks that are normally put in place during high-tide flooding, according to the Associated Press, and officials closed the water-bus system in the hardest-hit areas. Venetians and tourists waded through the streets in waist-high water. Police tweeted some tourists were stranded by the rising water. Business owners used pumps to protect their stores after barriers failed to keep the water from coming through doors and windows.

At 61.4 inches, Monday’s flood was the worst in Venice in a decade and the fifth largest on record. It was tied with the December 2008 flood, when onshore winds peaked at around 45 mph. Venice’s highest water level, 76 inches, was recorded in 1966.

Sea level has been rising rapidly in Venice — at a rate faster than in other parts of the world — in part because the city itself is sinking. Decades ago, the city realized that pumping groundwater was causing the city to settle and sink, and officials stopped the practice. But a 2012 study found that, despite a brief pause, Venice had started to sink again after the early 2000s. Removing groundwater, scientists hypothesized, was simply exacerbating the main problem: Shifting tectonic plates below Italy were causing the coast to slowly sink into the sea.

Between the sinking and the sea-level rise, climate scientists predict Venice will be entirely underwater by the end of this century.

“Venice was built at sea level, something which across history helped protect it from invasions and barbarians, as the city was never conquered by sea,” said Paolo Canestrelli, founder and former head of the municipality’s Tide Monitoring and Forecast Centre, “but nowadays the sea is no longer a safeguard as much as a liability, as we’re among the first cities in the world to suffer such events."

Canestrelli, who invented the multitone alarm that warned the city of the rising tide Monday morning, explains how the Sirocco — a well-known wind blowing from North Africa across the Mediterranean — sometimes pumps seawater into Venice and floods it. But the other cause is the rise of global temperatures, “which have increased the average sea level across the whole of Earth’s surface, and even more so in Venice, it lying just a few inches above water."

Tides high enough to flood the city used to be a relatively rare occurrence, every 20 to 30 years or so, he pointed out, whereas now they happen every four or five years.

For decades, the municipality has been seeking a technological solution to protect the ancient city from floods like the one on Monday. It finally opted for the installation of a massive underwater floodgate system called MOSE. But a corruption scandal ultimately led to what infrastructure minister Danilo Toninelli has called an “unjustified and dangerous” paralysis. Construction has been at a standstill for years, while the huge feat of engineering lies unfinished at the bottom of Venice’s lagoon. Parts of it may already be damaged by seawater.

“You can’t let such a project stay unused,” Canestrelli said. “We’ve spent millions of euros, and now we’re letting it die down there?”

The storm did more than just flood damage up and down Italy’s coast. Monday’s winds were so strong they ripped a 2,100-passenger cruise ship from its moorings. The Celebrity Constellation, which was docked in La Spezia, then drifted into another cruise ship, the Costa Magica. Debbie Laughton, who Newsweek identified as being a passenger on the Constellation, called it “organized chaos” when Celebrity Cruise Lines had to evacuate in the pre-dawn hours Tuesday.

High-tide flooding is forecast to continue through Wednesday in Venice, while winds from the southeast push seawater into the lagoon city. Peak water levels are expected to reach 43 inches, which, according to city officials, occurs in Venice about four times per year.

Angela Fritz reported from Washington. Stefano Pitrelli reported from Rome.