The siren sounded at four o’clock in the afternoon: an ascending four-note melody in a minor key spread across the city, warning of an imminent flood of more than 140 cm. The Rialto became a stampede of umbrellas and barging limbs. An hour later, the water started to seep through the door of my ground-floor flat. The barricade provided by the landlord was breaching grey liquid. My partner threw down newspaper in the entrance hall to block the leak. I was stationed in the bathroom, tasked with bailing out the toilet bowl and shower, both filling up with the dirty, salty fluid. I ladled the stuff out the window with a kitchen pot. At last, after a couple of hours, the water level began to drop. I wandered out into the dark street, the lagoon still brushing against my knees, and prepared for another week of it.
I first experienced the acqua alta in 2012. I’d just moved to Venice and the ebb and flow of the sea had a certain romance to it. The strange rituals, the stoic humour of the locals, were new and exhilarating. High water was a regular fixture of the winter months. The idea that an evening aperitivo could be interrupted by the alarm was a simple fact of life. Running through the backstreets to find the way blocked by a flood was something I got used to. Like everyone else, I would just take off my shoes and wade through. Every autumn the city gets ready, putting up barriers to protect the houses, shops and restaurants, but the water finds its way in through the cracks.
Venice is built on timber foundations which are sinking into the marshland below. The waters rose to more than 140 cm three times last week: it’s never happened more than twice in a year before. On 12 November the level was 187 cm, the worst since 1966. Two people have died and hundreds have seen their businesses and homes wrecked. Vaporetti, water taxis and private boats have been stranded on the pavements. Hundreds of schoolchildren braved the floods to go on climate strike last Friday, as they do every week. Among the placards were attacks on local government: too much money has been spent on docks for giant cruise ships, they said, and not enough on defending the city from the high waters.
The MOSE project, a system of underwater gates to keep the rising Adriatic out of the lagoon, has been under construction since 2003. Overdue and over budget, it’s now scheduled for completion in 2022, at a cost of nearly €5.5 billion.
The right-wing regional government remains blind to the environmental factors behind the crisis. Last week, they voted to block national-level climate change legislation. Minutes after the decision was taken, the council chamber in the Palazzo Ferro Fini was flooded for the first time ever. Outside, throngs of tourists continued to wade past the city’s monuments, posing for selfies. ‘The acqua alta used to be an unusual, picturesque thing,’ the photographer Gianni Gardin said recently. ‘Not any more. Now it’s a real catastrophe.’