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Worst floods for more than 50 years swamp Venice

Riccardo Bastianello, November 14, 2019 7:00PM Reuters

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The flooded San Marco square with Saint Mark's Basilica and the Bell Tower on November 12, 2019 in Venice. Picture: AFP media_cameraThe flooded San Marco square with Saint Mark's Basilica and the Bell Tower on November 12, 2019 in Venice. Picture: AFP


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UNESCO* World Heritage Site Venice is in a state of emergency* after “apocalyptic*” floods swept through the historic Italian city.

Canals were turned into raging torrents*, stone balustrades were shattered, the historic basilica* and centuries-old palaces flooded, boats tossed ashore and gondolas* smashed against their moorings as the lagoon tide peaked at 187cm shortly before midnight Wednesday, with driving rain and strong wind making the situation worse.

It was the highest tide level since the record 194cm set in 1966 but with rising water levels becoming a regular threat, city mayor Luigi Brugnaro was quick to blame climate change for the disaster.

“Venice is on its knees,” said Mr Brugnaro. “The damage will run into hundreds of millions of euros.”

“This is the result of climate change,” he said on Twitter.

media_cameraA tourist pushes her floating luggage through Saint Mark’s Square, in Venice, Italy, November 13, 2019. Picture: AP

Venice’s huge Saint Mark’s Square, once described as Europe’s living room, was submerged by more than 1m of water, while the adjacent* Saint Mark’s Basilica was flooded for the sixth time in 1200 years – but the fourth in the past 20.

“The Basilica is suffering structural damage because the water has risen and so it’s causing irreparable* damage,” said Venice Archbishop Francesco Moraglia, 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.

More than 80 per cent of Venice was under water when the tide was at its highest and although levels had receded by daybreak further bad weather was expected later in the week, with a series of storms lining up to batter Italy.

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 programs — corruption*, cost overruns and prolonged delays.

“If Mose had been working, then we would have avoided this exceptional high tide,” Mr Brugnaro said.

Originally expected to start operating in 2011, the city now expects it to be functioning in 2021.

media_cameraA room in the flooded Gritti Palace on November 12, 2019 in Venice. Picture: AFP

While locals started a clean-up operation, some tourists appeared to enjoy the drama, with one man filmed swimming across Saint Mark’s Square wearing only shorts on Tuesday evening.

“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.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is built on more than 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea.

The permanent population is about 260,000, but 22-30 million tourists visit each year staying in the city and on cruise ships anchoring in the lagoon.

It was one of the most important and richest cities in the world from the 800s to the 1600s and was an international trading, shipping and military hub*.

It was the capital city of the Republic of Venice for more than a thousand years until the late 1700s and became part of Italy in 1866.

It has no roads, only canals. The most famous is the Grand Canal, which is lined with palaces.

media_cameraA stranded taxi boat on Riva degli Schiavoni, Venice, Italy, after the high tide subsided. Picture: AFP

People fleeing Barbarian invasion in the 400s began building by driving trunks of trees down into the sand and mud until they sat on hard clay. Limestone was placed on the tops of the tree trunks for building foundations.

In addition to fears about rising sea levels, high tides and extreme weather as a result of climate change, the city is gradually sinking. Wells dug to access underground water for drinking made the buildings sink. The wells were banned in the 1960s and the sinking has slowed.

Many ground-floor buildings and stairwells once used to unload goods from boats are now unusable even when the city is not experiencing a flood event.

media_cameraTourists carry their luggage as they wade through water in Venice, Italy, on November 13, 2019. Picture: AP


  • UNESCO: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • state of emergency: a situation declared by a government that gives it special powers to act if necessary in the case of a natural disaster or armed conflict such as a war
  • apocalyptic: like the end of the world
  • torrents: strong and fast-moving stream
  • basilica: large, important church such as a cathedral
  • gondolas: canal boats
  • adjacent: next to or adjoining
  • irreparable: can’t be repaired
  • euro: common currency of most European Union countries
  • corruption: dishonest behaviour, such as offering or taking bribes, by people in power
  • hub: important central point


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  1. What height did the tide reach? What is the record?
  2. What is Mose? What is happening with it now?
  3. What does the marine research expert think about the future for Venice?
  4. How did early residents build on water?
  5. Why is the city sinking?


1. What does the future hold?
Imagine you are a tour guide in 3019 (1000 years away). You regularly take tourists to see Venice. What will they be looking at?

Write a spiel that you might give to your tour group about Venice, include some of the history of Venice (remember, by then what is happening today will be history too) when and how it became a city, what was the city important for in different periods of time (trading hub, tourism), what major problems occurred in or near Venice that affected its structure (for example, flooding, sinking) and what caused them. What was done to rectify these problems (if anything) did they work? Was the city saved so you are now looking at incredibly old buildings that are still standing? Or are you looking at the ruins of a city that has collapsed into the water?

Try to make your spiel as interesting as possible, including factual information. You may like to do some further research to help get some interesting ‘stories’ to add to your spiel (for example: find out some famous people that lived in Venice or designed buildings or created artworks that were kept in Venice.

Practice reading your spiel with expression to engage your audience.

Time: allow 60 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Humanities and Social Sciences – History, The Arts – Drama

2. Extension
Onomatopoeia is the formation of a word from the sound associated with what is named (for example ‘bang’, ‘sizzle’ or ‘swish’).

There is some description in the article about the storms that raged through Venice. Imagine the sounds that would have been heard.

Write an Onomatopoeia poem that creates the feeling of being there as the storm went through.

An example of how you might start is:

Wind howling, swishing, squalling

Gondalas crashing, smashing, bangingWaves crashing, splashing, lashing

You may use this pattern of poem or change it completely as long as you use onomatopoeia in it.  When you are happy with it, publish your work and illustrate it with what you imagine Venice might have looked like during or after the storms. 

 Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity 
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and Creative Thinking

The glossary of terms helps you to understand and learn the ambitious vocabulary being used in the article. Can you use the words outlined in the glossary to create new sentences? Challenge yourself to include other VCOP (vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation) elements in your sentence/s. Have another look through the article, can you find any other Wow Words not outlined in the glossary?

HAVE YOUR SAY: Should more be done to save Venice?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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