VENICE — Even by the standards of a city built in a shallow lagoon, the water was everywhere that it wasn’t supposed to be this week.

Nearly knee-high, the floodwaters spread across the city’s main piazza, turning it into a vast lake for seagulls. At the nearby millennium-old basilica, the last inches of water remained in the crypt even after a day of pumping, collecting around the tomb of a Roman Catholic cardinal. All around the busiest parts of the city, the water slicked the floors of cafes and Murano glass shops and seeped into hotel lobbies, leaving a smell of sewage in its wake.

Venice, on the surface, can rebound quickly from disastrous flooding. The tourists this week never left; one posed for pictures with soot and mud on her wedding dress. But the people who live here say the toll of repeated inundation is mounting — measured not only in the damage to businesses and precious art or architecture, but, above all, in the sense that life in one of the world’s most improbable and spellbinding cities is becoming unviable.

“The reaction is to cry,” said Flavia Feletti, 77, who has lived in Venice for six decades. “I am afraid there is no solution. When I went out the day after the flooding, I met a kind of funeral in the city.”

The Washington Post's Rome bureau chief Chico Harlan spoke about what Venice was like after floodwaters submerged the city as of Nov. 13. (Alexa Ard, Chico Harlan/The Washington Post)

Venice has thrived since the 5th century by taming the water all around it. In recent decades, even as the land has been sinking while the sea level has been rising, many Venetians figured the city would again find a way to evolve and hang on. But one major flood after the next is testing that faith, and a major civil engineering project to protect the city remains unfinished, slowed by corruption scandals, and might already be obsolete.

The city is endangered — not just as a tourist destination, but for the 50,000 people who continue to live in Venice year-round, and who know the water well enough to describe in detail how it is changing and becoming more threatening.

This week, in an event known as an “acqua alta,” a tide of more the six feet surged in from the Adriatic Sea and quickly covered 85 percent of the city. The flooding, related to an unusually intense low-pressure system and winds that piled water up the Adriatic, was the most severe in 50 years.

Although the peak came on Tuesday night, Friday brought additional flooding. The city was more than 70 percent inundated around lunchtime, according to city hall sources. Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square, was closed during the high tide, and the famed vaporetto waterbus service was suspended.

These floods are becoming an ever more frequent part of the Venice landscape.

The sort of extreme high-water episodes that Venice historically saw every 100 or so years are expected to happen once every six years by the middle of this century and once every five months by 2100, according to the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Those calculations only take sea-level rise into consideration, and do not include the sinking of the land on which Venice sits, which means flooding would be even more common than those figures suggest.

Some experts warn that Venice could be underwater within a century.

“It’s a city full of history,” said Vladimiro Cavagnis, a fourth-generation Venetian gondolier who chauffeurs tourists on the city’s trademark rowing boats. “A history that, little by little, with water, will end up like Atlantis. People are destroyed, anguished, sad. They see a city that is disappearing.”

To be in Venice this week, at least in some of those most-touristed parts, was to watch everyday life carry on when nature makes it highly impractical. Entrepreneurs sold cheap rainboots for 10 euros, and the city erected elevated walkways so visitors could move across flooded areas in narrow lines. Police barked at people who stopped on the planks to take flood-zone selfies.

Elsewhere, though, Venetians were at work trying to return their city to what it had been days earlier. Employees swept water out of stores and took inventories of the damage. At St. Mark’s Basilica, closed to visitors because of the flooding, workers were monitoring the cathedral’s ornate and ancient flooring, finding pieces of marble that had chipped away as the saltwater receded.

“What should I do with this one?” a worker asked, holding up a deep-red marble triangle and showing it to Mario Piana, the head of restoration.

“Put it over by the altar,” Piana said, where more than a dozen other pieces had already been collected.

Piana said that at the peak of the flooding on Tuesday night, parts of the church were covered in a foot of water, and that the days since then had been “chaos.”

He described the church as a fragile beauty — covered nearly from ceiling to floor with a mosaic of gold and marble.
Parts of the flooring, uneven as a wave, date back to 1094. Even before this week, work was underway to remove salt from marble pillars.

“I’m worried,” Piana said. “I’m worried for the basilica.

“The acqua alta does not create immediate, obvious damages. On the outside, you do not immediately see anything. But it is comparable to radiation exposure. In a week, you lose your hair. In a year, you might be dead.”

Venice, over the centuries, has diverted rivers to protect the lagoon and extended the barrier islands. But now, the sea level is rising several millimeters every year.

Offshore, at the inlets between those barrier islands, a massive project known as MOSE could potentially boost Venice’s protection — with floodgates that could be raised from the sea during high tide, sealing off the lagoon. The project, launched in 2003, was once forecast to finish in 2011. Then 2014. Now, projections call for completion in 2022.

Some experts say that if sea levels rise as predicted, the gates will need to be permanently raised, creating an equally serious problem: Venice would become a contained aquatic petri dish and face issues with sewage, algae growth and microbiological pollution.

Venice authorities said on Nov. 13 that water levels peaked at just over six feet, second only to a record flood in 1966. (Reuters)

Older Venetians tend to remember the record flooding of 1966, when such an event was more of an outlier. The flooding this week was just seven centimeters shy of that mark. Serious flooding also hit the city in 2018.

“Psychologically, it has been a blow,” said Maurizio Calligaro, 65, a native Venetian who headed the city’s civil protection for two decades, until 2014.

Calligaro said that for people in their 60s, the record flood was a “very strong shared trauma, not unlike the memory of war.” This time, though, “it took only five hours to do what ’66 did in 12. Such violence is intrinsic to climate change.”

Some Venetians, he said, are still resistant to the climate realities — and direct their anger at the problems with MOSE, a project that has cost 6 billion euros.

Residents say that climate change is not the only threat, and the city is also struggling to contend with runaway tourism — by some counts, 30 million visitors per year, who drive up costs for locals, compel Venetians to turn their apartments into Airbnbs, and drive an economy with jobs largely in tourism.

“There are too many tourists for every citizen,” said Aline Cendon, 52, who has written several books on Venice.

Cendon said that, after 1966, Venetians left in droves. She feared a similar response this time.

“A town, a city, without residents — what remains?” Cendon said. “It loses its very being.”

Andrew Freedman in Washington contributed to this report.