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How Venice’s flood barriers are bringing the city back to life

After decades of talk, MOSE was finally deployed successfully at the weekend. Julia Buckley explains what it could mean for the beleaguered La Serenissima

Tuesday 06 October 2020 12:53 BST
Venice has been at the mercy of flooding for decades
Venice has been at the mercy of flooding for decades (Julia Buckley)

The air raid siren woke me up just after 8am on Saturday. At least, that’s what it sounded like. 

Venice’s warning system for acqua alta (the high-tide flooding that affects much of the city through the winter) sounds like a blast of a WWII-style siren, followed by a rising number of notes, depending on how bad things are going to get. One note means the tide is 110cm – enough to send St Mark’s Square, one of the lowest-lying areas of the city, under 20cm of water, but sparing much of the rest. Four means 140cm or more – that’s the siren that wailed last November for the flood that decimated the city.  

This time, it was three notes: 135cm had been predicted. Enough to flood half the city, including my flat.

I didn’t need to move too much off the floor – that’s because I’d returned from a fortnight away only the night before, and had carefully moved everything out of harm’s way before leaving. It was still summer when I left – everyone was wandering around in flipflops and a sheen of sweat – but the raised walkways had been piled up in the streets in early September, and I didn’t want to risk anything. In Venice, you never know. Even when I’ve gone away for a weekend, I’ve made sure my flat is ready for a flood.

This was to be my first acqua alta as a resident. I’ve visited Venice plenty of times with it before, and, as a tourist, enjoyed it – nothing feels more Venetian than slopping around St Mark’s Square in wellies, or dipping into a gallery while the tide’s up. Once, crossing a bridge to find water on the other side, I dipped into the church of San Sebastiano, and got entranced by the paintings and frescos by Veronese. By the time I came out, the ground was dry enough to continue in my trainers.

But while there’s a romance to acqua alta for tourists, for residents it’s a different story. Even the last few months since I moved here have shown me that preparing for the worst every time you leave home is a constant annoyance – and that’s speaking as a renter, whose landlord would have to replace anything with water damage. 

For homeowners, it’s far worse. They can’t get flood insurance, so they either have to raise up everything – furniture, appliances, the lot – above the water level, or risk losing it all. Ask any Venetian about acqua alta and they’ll look back at you with a mix of resignation, exhaustion and despair.  

Although, perhaps less so from now on. Because on Saturday, the flood barriers which have been promised for decades were finally tested in a high tide. And, against all odds in a year that keeps getting worse, they worked.  

Unlike in some earlier trials, the 78 flaps embedded in the bottom of the lagoon at its three main entrance points all rose up, knitted together, and blocked the high tide from the Adriatic Sea from entering the lagoon.  

It was, as my neighbour crowed, “historic”. The same neighbour who had predicted that house prices would tumble as soon as the barriers were tested, so convinced was he that it would fail. But despite what all Venetians feared and a good proportion expected, they did what they were designed to do. As my neighbour said, it was the first time in Venice’s history that the city was no longer at the mercy of the high tide. It changed everything.

Named MOSE (part acronym, part biblical reference, and not just because of the length of time it’s taken), the flood barrier system was first mooted in 1984, after decades of discussion. In 1966, the city had suffered its worst ever flood – a 194cm tide, enveloping around 90 per cent of the city and damaging buildings, belongings and priceless works of art.  

Venice installs underwater barriers fearing high tides

MOSE was meant to ensure that never happened again. But after countless delays, scandals and corruption – including the arrest of the city’s former mayor on a bribery charge – the water was allowed back in on 12 November 2019. An exceptionally high tide coupled with a strong sirocco wind (which normally causes acqua alta) was joined by the bora – the gale from the east, which drove the Adriatic Sea towards the lagoon. A tide of 187cm surged into the city, devastating galleries, museums (Ca’ Pesaro, the modern art museum, only reopened last month), churches – and every business in the city.  

Artisans saw their stock destroyed, restaurant kitchens short-circuited and hotels saw their ground floors wiped out. Anyone living on the ground floor lost almost all their possessions. Walking around the streets in the aftermath, I saw sodden mattresses piled outside front doors, disintegrating books dumped in the street, and business owners frantically trying to reseal their doorways.

That flooding, followed by a sharp drop in tourism and then the pandemic, has brought Venice to its knees. Little wonder why few people truly believed that the barriers would work. Even when a test in July, attended by prime minister Giuseppe Conte, went smoothly, people assumed that it was because the weather conditions were favourable.  

The storm on Saturday started at around 9am – rain plus a sirocco wind of about 19 knots meeting a high tide, thanks to the full moon. I was trying to work out whether the belongings I’d piled on my bed would be safe enough when the rain started pelting down and I could hear the wind whipping the trees outside. 

My landlord had said not to panic – that the MOSE was being tested, and even if it didn’t work, we’d have until midday’s high tide to raise the furniture – but it didn’t occur to me that the barrier would actually protect us, because I’d never heard anyone say a good word about it. “For years I’ve been defending the MOSE,” mayor Luigi Brugnaro told me afterwards. “I’m one of the few. And that’s why I’ve been attacked.”

For two hours, I sat with my belongings on their raised surfaces, waiting for the water. And then at 10.30am, a friend texted to say we were safe. St Mark’s Square should be under water, and yet it was dry – she was watching on a live video feed. The water would never reach us in our higher part of the city.  

I ventured out – to the bakery, and to the bar, to find everyone standing around with grins on their faces, wearing trainers where I was still wearing my apocalyptic wellies. Nobody was mentioning it directly – it was almost as if they were scared to break the spell. Still not believing, I walked down to St Mark’s for midday – high tide. There were a few big puddles bubbling up from the drains, and tourists jumping excitedly into them. It was only when the tide had receded, that afternoon, that people dared speak about it. “Historic,” said my landlord. “Like man’s first step on the moon,” said a friend.  

The MOSE doesn’t belong to the city yet – it won’t until it’s finished in December 2021 (the project also includes raising pavement levels in the lowest areas of the city, and building bigger flood walls on the islands near the barriers). But on 30 September, it was announced that the system would be deployed this winter if the tide hit 130cm. 

Normally, the real acqua alta doesn’t start till November. But thanks to climate change, it’s getting earlier, and this year was earlier than ever. Two days after the decision to use it in an emergency, it needed to be used. And already it’s known that this isn’t a longterm solution – in a couple of decades, MOSE is unlikely to be able to hold back the growing tides.

It’s not even a full solution right now. Once the city takes over, the barrier will be raised at a lower 110cm, but St Mark’s floods at 90cm. Just 24 hours after the MOSE blocked the tide, on Sunday it was back at 106cm. The square was calf-deep in water, and all the businesses on the lower north side were boarded up, their staff desperately pumping and sweeping out water. As the tide receded, I sat down for a drink at Gran Caffé Chioggia, which was still open, the water up to my ankles. It’s bittersweet for the businesses there, knowing that the solution exists, but not really for them.

But for now, knowing that the impossible has been achieved, the city feels miraculous. Acqua alta makes it harder to live here. If it largely disappears, perhaps it’s not too much to hope that the empty ground-floor flats all over the city – places that have been left to rot as 70 per cent of Venetians have deserted the tourist-flooded city in the past 70 years – might one day come back to life.  

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