Vulnerability of Venice exposed by devastating series of floods

By Colleen Barry, Associated Press

Record-breaking floods are taking their toll on Venice amid calls to preserve the city from the ravages of problems such as climate change.

The lagoon-based city has experienced a population decline even if its canals and historic buildings still make it a magnet for tourists.

One of only four oar makers for Venice’s famed gondoliers, Paolo Brandolisio, whose ground-floor workshop has been inundated for the third time in a week of record-breaking floods, is just one resident despairing of any help from national or local institutions.

“If these phenomena continue to repeat themselves, you have to think about how to defend yourself,” he said.

“Because the defences that the politicians have made don’t seem to be nearly enough.”

Paolo Brandolisio stands in his flooded oars laboratory (Luca Bruno/AP)

“You have to think of yourself,” he repeated.

Venetians are fed up with what they see as inadequate responses to the city’s mounting problems: record-breaking flooding, environmental and safety threats from cruise ship traffic and the burden on services from over-tourism.

They feel largely left to their own devices, with ever-fewer Venetians living in the historic part of the city to defend its interests and keep it from becoming mainly a tourist domain.

The historic flooding this week, marked by three floods over 1.5 metres (nearly five feet) and the highest in 53 years at 1.87 metres (six feet, one inch), has sharpened calls to create an administration that recognises the uniqueness of Venice, for both its concentration of treasures and its increasing vulnerability.

Flood damage has been estimated at hundreds of millions of euros (dollars), but the true scope will only become clear with time.

Architectural masterpieces like St Mark’s Cathedral still need to be fully inspected and damaged manuscripts from the Music Conservatory library treated by experts, not to mention the personal losses suffered by thousands of residents and businesses.

“I feel ashamed,” said Fabio Moretti, the president of Venice’s historic Academy of Fine Arts that was once presided over by Tiepolo and Canova.

“These places are left in our custody. They don’t belong to us.

“They belong to humanity. It is a heritage that needs to be preserved.”

The frustration goes far beyond the failure to complete and activate 78 underwater barriers that were designed to prevent just the kind of damage that Venice has endured this week.

A couple stand in a golden sunset in Venice (Luca Bruno/AP)

With the system not yet completed or even partially tested after 16 years of work and five billion euros invested, many are sceptical it will even work.

“This is a climate emergency. This is sick governance of the city,” said Jane Da Mosto, an environmental scientist and executive director of the We Are Here Venice non-governmental organisation, whose aim it is to keep Venice a living city as opposed to a museum or theme park.

Mr Brandolisio, the oar builder, sees systemic lapses in the official response, including the failure of local authorities to organise services immediately for those in need, an absence filled by volunteers.

That included both a network of students who helped clear out waterlogged property for those in need and professionals like water-taxi drivers who offered transport during the emergency.

Flood water start coming in, in Venice, Italy (Luca Bruno/AP)

For now, he is taking matters into his own hands.

To protect his bottega where he not only makes oars but carves ornamental oar posts for gondolas or as sculpture, Mr Brandolisio said he will have to consider raising the floor by at least 20 centimetres and buying a pump, precautions he never previously deemed necessary.

“I think I will lose at least two or three weeks of work,” he said.

“I will have to dry everything.

“Lots of things fell into the water, so I need to clean all the tools that can get rusty.

A view of the Bridge of Sighs (Luca Bruno/AP)

“I need to take care of wood that got wet, which I can’t use because it cannot be glued.”

At the public level, proposals for better administering the city including granting some level of autonomy to Venice, already enjoyed by some Italian regions like Trentino-Alto-Adige with its German-speaking minority, or offering tax breaks to encourage Venice’s re-population.

Just 53,000 people live in the historic part of the city that tourists know as Venice, down by a third from a generation ago and dropping by about 1,000 people a year.

The population of the lagoon islands, including glass-making Murano and the Lido beach destination, is just under 30,000, and dwindling too.

That means fewer people watching the neighbourhood, monitoring for public maintenance issues or neighbours in need.

Tourists and residents resume their normal routine at a bar in Venice (Emiliano Crespi/AP)

Many leave the city nicknamed La Serenissima because of the increased expense or the daily difficulties in living in a city of canals, which can make even a simple errand a minor odyssey.

Activists also say local politicians are more beholden to the city’s mainland population, which has jumped to 180,000 people not directly affected, for the most part, by the same issues as the lagoon dwellers.

They are pushing for the passage of a referendum on December 1 that would give the historic centre and islands their own administration, separate from that serving more populous Mestre and the industrial port of Marghera.

A man stands next to a gondola station in flooded Venice (Luca Bruno/AP)

Those areas were annexed to Venice by the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, and not necessarily a natural fit.

“It is precisely because we also have a climate emergency that this kind of thing is more important,” Ms Da Mosto said.

“The only thing we can do for the climate is to prepare.

“That requires appropriate policies and investments and responsible engineering.

“And because the political context of Venice is so wrong, Venice doesn’t have a chance at the moment.”