NOVEMBER 12, 2019: HIGH TIDE IN VENICE, A MEDIA TSUNAMI?

January 13th, 2020
The night of November 12th, 2019 will be hardly forgotten in Venice.

Due to an exceptional high tide that reached the record level of 187 cm on the local datum at the Punta della Salute, 80% of the city got flooded, and it was recorded as the second highest tide in the history of Venice. 

As the water was constantly rising in St.Mark’s Square, the Mayor Luigi Brugnaro made a statement and an appeal to the Government. 

He said he would immediately declare a state of disaster, since the damage was “enormous and devastating”, and appealed to Venetians, both local businesses and inhabitants, to document what happens and share with the Net. 

Thousands of videos and pictures showed the whole world the extensive damages, the impotency  of a city left at the mercy of the elements, the desperate appeals of the local authorities, the fear for the cultural heritage of the city, the frustration of suffering the consequences of a tragic phenomenon that was not supposed to happen again!  

Briefly, the image of city was on its knees had a huge impact on the media, which provided more information about the event, but at the same time hand increased the alarm, as we check the headlines of some respected newspapers:

“Two people die as Venice floods at highest level in 50 years” (Nzherald, November 14th),

“Venice floods, climate change behind highest tide in 50 years, says Major” (BBC News, November 13th), 

“Venice closes St. Mark’s Square as floods hit third time in a week” (The Guardian, November 17th),

“Venice Flooding brings city to its knees” (NT Times, November 13th),

“Venecia sufre su peor inundatiòn desde 1966"(El Paìs, November 13th),

while French newspaper Le Monde sounded less dramatic with “En Italie, Venise touché par une ‘marée haute’ historique” (November 13th). 

Aside from the errors in the titles, both texts and pictures conveyed the feeling of a permanent state of emergency,  and confused ideas about the way high tide operates in Venice, along with little news concerning the weeks that followed the unfortunate night. I mean, was Venice reacting?

What about the attitude of the Venetians? Were they waiting for international and national support or were they striving to return to normal life? And how? 

This archipelago of 118 islands was a swampy area, and over the centuries the Serenissima Government waged a challenge against the natural process for the Lagoon to silt-up, ‘cause of the rivers flowing into the Lagoon. 

On the contrary, in the modern age the rise of the sea level, the erosion and the pollution forced Venice to protect itself from the sea waters that used to invade periodically the islands. 

The disastrous flood of November 4th, 1966 gave the evidence of the ecosystem frailty and the urgent need of serious measures for its survival, which were put into practice with the M.O.S.E. project  based on 78 hinged steel floodgates stretching across the inlets of the Lagoon in order to prevent high tides.  

In 2003 the project was financed by the National authority but overtime it was affected by rising costs, legal charges, scandals and ...the metal gates haven’t been tested yet!

It will happen in six months this year, following the outcry of the last tide. Nevertheless a secondary level, represented by the residents and local authority, stands on the front line whenever high tide occurs.

 It is worth reminding that the regular tidal movement is expected twice a day and doesn’t cause any trouble, but when the warm winds from South-East -Scirocco- blow north across the Adriatic Sea, an extra amount of salt water is driven into  the Lagoon, and the longer the worse. 

Extra tide cannot flow out, so some areas get flooded according to the level of the islands, which is not the same of course. Moreover, tide is increased by the full moon, and when the “astronomical tide” matches storm surges, the flooding reaches the peak.  

According to the “Tidal forecast and information centre” high tide occurs when it gets to +80 cm above the local datum of Punta della Dogana, the station for tide tracking located at the beginning of the Grand Canal.  The impact of extra tides on Venice is strictly related to seasons, 70% of them take place from October through December, 

Since the 1970’s the Council of Venice has been providing a siren warring system consisting of four progressive sound levels from a minimum of +110 cm  (5% of the public land gets flooded) to a maximum of +140 cm (about 59% of the land gets flooded),  through loudspeakers installed in the city, on the Lido beach and the Lagoon islands.  

Whenever needed, the local administration activates the “Pedestrian mobility plan” based on elevated walkways, that cover 2,5 miles, set by garbage collectors in the early morning. 

So let’s clarify one thing: floods last a few hours and not all day, normally salt water drains up  in the morning until lunchtime, then it drains down until late afternoon when slowly it goes up again till midnight, although not as bad as in the morning. 

In other words, Venice has learnt how to deal with this phenomena over the decades, with the purpose of improving the normal lifestyle of those who live here and tourists: usually on a day of high tide both supermarkets and fresh produce stalls are open, museums are accessible, public and private transportation run anyway, students go to school, deliveries are made regularly, trash is collected in the afternoon instead of in the morning… life goes on as usual! 

Venetians are quite determined to protect as much as possible the place where they live and work, besides state benefits which are always welcome, although they are not allowed so frequently.  

What happened on November 12th was a big storm that could not be predicted the day before, and only grown-up Venetians could remember a similar event dating from 53 years earlier, which is a very long time in respect with hurricanes, eruptions, tornados ravaging coasts and lands on an annual basis around the world. 

In Venice nobody was injured or got drowned in a canal. A man was electrocuted on the Pellestrina island as he was trying to start a pump in his apartment, unfortunately a fatal accident.  

But a “media tsunami” fell upon Venice, which made things worse, and in a few days hotels registered 50% cancellations, as well as Travel Agencies and restaurants. 

Tourists asked weird questions concerning the floods and people living here: was it dangerous for little children, since they were “pretty short”?

Did we need any field hospital? What about gondolas circulating in St.Mark’s Square? Did we get flooded for four weeks? 

Correct and first hand information can help, together with a fair amount of common sense…. indeed!

Acqua Alta in Venice
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