Venice's mayor Luigi Brugnaro declared a state of emergency on Wednesday after "apocalyptic" floods swept through the lagoon city, flooding its historic basilica and inundating squares and centuries-old buildings.
Much of Venice was under water after the highest tide in 50 years ripped through the historic Italian city, beaching gondolas, trashing hotels and sending tourists fleeing through rapidly rising waters.
Tourists push their floating luggage in a flooded St. Mark's Square, in Venice, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 (Photo: AP)
Thoroughfares were turned into raging torrents, stone balustrades were shattered, boats tossed ashore and gondolas smashed against their moorings as the lagoon tide peaked at 187 cm (6ft 2ins) shortly before midnight.
It was the highest level since the record 194 cm set in 1966 but with rising water levels becoming a regular threat to the tourist jewel, and city mayor Luigi Brugnaro was quick to blame climate change for the disaster.
The floods, accentuated by driving rains and strong winds, also ravaged areas beyond the city itself.
"The city is on its knees," Venice mayor Luigi Brugnaro said in an interview with national broadcaster RAI.
"There's widespread devastation," he said in the famed St. Mark's Square, which bore the brunt of the flooding. "In all likelihood the damage from last night runs into hundreds of millions of euros (dollars)."
"This is the result of climate change," Brugnaro said on Twitter.
One man died on Pellestrina, one of the many islands that dot the Venetian lagoon, electrocuted while trying to pump water out of his house.
A flood barrier was designed in 1984 to protect Venice from high tides, but the multi-billion euro project, known as Mose, has been plagued by the sort of problems that have come to characterise major Italian infrastructure programmes – corruption, cost overruns and prolonged delays.
"If Mose had been working, then we would have avoided this exceptional high tide," Brugnaro said.
The plan involves 78 gates that can be raised to protect Venice's lagoon during high tides – but a recent attempt to test part of the barrier caused worrying vibrations and engineers discovered parts had rusted.
Officials blamed climate change while shopkeepers on the Grand Canal raged against those who have failed to protect the UNESCO city from the high tide.
They said corruption had repeatedly delayed a barrier protection system which could have prevented the disaster.
"They've done nothing, neglected it. It doesn't work and they have stolen six billion euros. The politicians should all be put in jail," said local Dino Perzolla, 62.
"Venice has been tortured, but there are also other parts of the Veneto region besides Venice. It is an apocalyptic disaster," regional governor Luca Zaia told reporters.
He said he was "horrified" by what he was seeing from numerous communities.
Francesco Moraglia, the Patriarch of St Mark's Basilica Monsignor, also told reporters: "I have never seen something like what I saw yesterday afternoon [Tuesday] at St. Mark's square. There were waves as if we were at the beach."
People wade through water in a flooded St. Mark's Square, in Venice, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 (Photo: AP)
A view of the flooded interior of St. Mark's Basilica, in Venice, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 (Photo: AP)
"The Basilica is suffering structural damage because the water has risen and so it's causing irreparable damage," warning that ancient mosaics and tiling might have been badly degraded.
"I have never seen anything like it. Venice is a wounded city, but it can't keep on being wounded every year in the same way," he said.
"It was unbelievable, the water rose so quickly," resident Tiziano Collarin, 59, told AFP as he surveyed the damage.
"Windows were blown out, there are those who have lost everything," he said as the flood alarm rang out to warn those in the canal city that the tide, which had receded somewhat overnight, was coming in once again.
The fire brigade said it had carried out over 400 operations as well as laying on extra boats as water ambulances.
A firefighter in scuba diver gear wades through water past a flooded car in Venice, Italy, November 13, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)
German tourist Gabi Brueckner, 58, said the nighttime drama was "horrifying".
She told an AFP reporter that she feared, like many people, that climate change "will get worse and at some point Venice will drown".
Around 160 fire fighters were deployed to rescue people stranded on jetties and to recover boats broken free from their moorings.
AFP reporter talked to Marina Vector, as she and her husband used buckets to scoop water out of their shop selling Venetian festival masks, she said "It was apocalyptic, enough to give you goosebumps."
"The storm was so bad it broke the marble flood barrier out front. Nothing's survived," she said.
Tables and chairs set out for aperitifs bobbed outside bedraggled luxury hotels, where people of all ages seeking safety from the storm late Tuesday had been forced to climb in through windows after gangways washed away.
"I've never seen anything like it in my life. There was a terrifying wind, it was a hurricane. It was horrible," said local Cristina, as she fought back tears.
President of the Veneto region Luca Zaia said 80 percent of the city had been submerged, causing "unimaginable damage".
"With the rise of sea levels, and an increase in the frequency of sea storms, these extreme phenomena will become ever more numerous," the head of Italy's national marine research department. Rosalia Santoleri, told state broadcaster RAI.
More than 80 percent of Venice was under water when the tide was at its highest, and although levels had receded by daybreak, further bad weather is expected later in the week, with a series of storms lining up to batter Italy.