Monday, December 1, 2008

Venice Underwater - Eyewitness Report

(Venice, Italy) The "sirens" for aqua alta, or high water, first went off this morning at around 7:30AM (I think). It's hard to tell because we have a new siren. It is three melodic, rising, harmonic tones, and sounds a little like Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- as if we should welcome the flooding waters with open arms. The old siren was frightening and insistent, like an air-raid siren warning of great danger to come. The Venetians did not dance to the music. As their years of hard labor were silently, slowly destroyed, the Venetians were furious.

This from Times Online, by Richard Owen from his front row seat in... Rome...?(!):

"Sirens sounded the alarm in Venice this morning as sea water surged into St Mark's Square and the authorities gave warning that the acqua alta (high water) could reach its highest levels for 30 years."

(Um... that's aqua alta, Richard, not acqua:)

I put on my high water boots, and headed off to the gym as I usually do. I arrived about 9:30. My gym is the best gym in Venice, I think. It is where the Angels stay fit, and is 90-95% Venetian and residents. The owner of the gym was agitated; I have never seen him like that before.

"The new siren is soothing for the tourists," I said. "So they are not alarmed."

"For my forty years we've had a proper siren," said the owner. "What did we need a new siren for? It's only more wasted money."

The owner paced back and forth, checking the water levels. At 10:15AM he said, "That's it. We have to shut down." At that point, the high water had flooded into the entrance. It was bubbling up through the floor and heading toward all the valuable exercise equipment. The owner was understandably distressed as he watched the manifestation of his hard work licked by the lagoon. The women's changing room is upstairs, and it was impossible to reach the steps unless you were wearing boots since the water was ankle-deep. Luckily, I had left my boots downstairs, and the attendant got them for me.

I splashed out the door. The water gushed through the calli. It was really serious. I stopped at the tobacco shop. The tobacco shop owner was even more agitated than the gym owner, and he is usually cracking jokes. "We are closed! This is not a normal day!" I said, "If it's not normal, then I need cigarettes even more." He stopped sopping up water and said, "Okay. What kind do you want?"

Out in the campo the tourists, who were standing on a small island of dry ground, starting taking photos of me as I trudged through the water, and now I became agitated. "This is not a joke!" I scolded them. "This is real life!"

I had planned to go to the supermarket, but it had already shut down. On the corner, the old woman who sold bread was still open. She is another Angel -- she was my first bread shop in Venice. So, I stopped there for bread and milk; inside the water was up to my calves. She asked, "Would you like regular or skimmed?" as if everything was fine. I said, "Skimmed." She swiftly opened the refrigerator door and grabbed the milk. She had to be fast or the lagoon water would have flooded inside the refrigerator. Soon more people poured into the shop for supplies; she had some of the only food left in town. The old woman calculated everything properly on the adding machine, and receipts were duly given. "Ciao!" she called as I left, a twinkle in her eye, and I thought she was a Truly Wise Angel.

It soon became impossible to avoid getting water inside my boots, it was so high. (That is a photo taken by Andrea Merola/EPA.) More from Richard Owen in... Rome...

"The Venice Centro Maree, or Tide Centre, which monitors water levels, said that high tides had reached 144cm (57in) above sea level , with 96 per cent of the lagoon city's surface area covered by water."

At Rialto, there was a man selling plastic boots to the tourists. I asked, "How much are those boots?" He said, "Ten euro." I said, "Last year they were five." He said, "Well, this year they are ten."

The Venetians had on their thigh-high fishing boots. All the shops were closed except for the pharmacy, another tobacco shop, and another bread shop. I needed food for Cleopatra, my cat, and decided to risk going over to the pet store. It was open! Sebastian had valiantly gathered what articles he could away from the rising water, and was still selling pet food. "Try her on this," he advised, handing me a bag. "It's for cats that have been spayed and are putting on a little weight." "You are molto simpatico to stay open today," I said. Sebastian laughed. "My apartment is already flooded."

When I got home, the water was inside my casa and had risen up to the second step. Luckily, I live high enough that if my apartment gets flooded, well, it's probably the End of the World anyway, and I can't think of a nicer way to go than into the arms of the lagoon. I sloshed into my apartment and went out on the balcony. Chairs from the restaurant below bobbed in the water. No vaporettos appeared to be running on the Grand Canal, and people were hailing water taxis and heading toward Piazzale Roma (I wish I had asked how much they were charging:). Some Venetians rowed their sandolas. Eventually a vaporetto came by and picked up some of the people who were intrepid enough to navigate the moat around the vaporetto stop.

I went in the bathroom and tried to take my boots off, but they wouldn't budge, they were so waterlogged. Finally, I ran hot water over them to make them expand, and after great effort, they came off.

Cleopatra was alarmed, dashing about, howling. I spoke to friends on the phone. Everybody was flooded. The animals were all alarmed. The only place that sounded normal was the island of Murano.

I started thinking it would not be such a bad thing if we continued to get flooded like this because then the masses of tourists would not come, and Venice would be forced to find real work for its residents. The price of housing would drop, and all the out-of-towners who own apartments here would have to reduce the outrageous rents. The Chinese businesses would not be profitable, and being pragmatic people, they would invest elsewhere. The universities would be fine because students are adjustable; perhaps they would find it a great adventure -- especially if there were subsidies. The Venetians themselves would be fine -- especially if there were subsidies -- because there are plenty of boats and gondolas, and they know how to row. There is plenty of fish from the sea, and fruit and vegetables on the islands. They could still make glass on the island of Murano, and return to lace-making on Burano. The gondoliers, needing work, would have to row the residents around. We could have high-tech businesses that use cyberspace and WiFi, and create video games. We could hold even more international conferences than we do today (just not on the ground floor:), so that the hotels could operate. Do we still have the film festival? Why, yes! Only we would have to row up the red carpet, which would float gently on the water, and the stars could adjust their attire to a more Neptunian theme.

More from Richard Owen in... Rome:

"A floating flood barrier is under construction at three entrances from the Adriatic into the lagoon, but is not due to go into operation until 2012 at the earliest."

That flood barrier would be MOSES. I have said repeatedly that I don't know enough to make a judgment as to whether MOSES is a good or bad thing. I do know, however, that the friars at San Francesco della Vigna have their own irrigation system that has served them for 200 years. I know, also, that there is a room in the Archivio di Stato that is dedicated to how the Venetians have managed the high water over the centuries. I have seen both with my own eyes. This is an excerpt about the State Archive from an article I wrote for the International Herald Tribune's Italy Daily dated August 30, 2002:

"One of the most important holdings is the series of volumes of the Senato Terra, a continuous record of daily decisions of the Venetian government that spans the period from 1250 to 1792. The Venetians were meticulous record-keepers, and noted in detail anything pertinent to the entire Republic. A brief search revealed that news of the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence traveled rapidly by way of the Venetian representative in England and reached the Doge's inner circle on August 12, 1776."

As I write this, the water has receded, and a brilliant patch of sun beams on the church steeple across the canal, tumultuous clouds in the background.

"Massimo Caciari, the Mayor of Venice, said that today's flood water level was 'exceptional. ...'
...However Mr Cacciari played down alarm, saying that flooding was part of everyday life in Venice. "We get sea levels of 140, 160 cm every few years," the Mayor said. Italian meteorologists said that the entire country was being experiencing bad weather, with driving rain, snow, hail and high winds causing flooding 'from the Alps to Palermo'. Many roads in Piedmont, Liguria and Lombardy have been closed."

To read Richard Owen's entire article, go here:

I just can't get a Chiffon Margarine commerical that I remember from the 70s out of my head, with the punchline, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!" I can't seem to embed it, but if you want to have a look, go here:

Ciao from Venice,


  1. Why did you scold the tourists? Who do you think you are?! You have photographs of people in the water in your blog. You know you've been in Venice too long when... you think you are superior to everyone else in the city.

  2. Thank you for taking time out of your life -- especially at dinner time -- to read Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog, Anonymous! I'm happy to know it has such importance to you!