It was an event that was never going to happen again.
Tested for the first time in harsh conditions, its successful deployment kept the historic center dry for the first time in the city’s history. It meant that the devastating floods of 2019, which damaged the city worth more than a billion dollars, should be a thing of the past.
In the two months since its introduction, at the beginning of what would traditionally be the flood season, the barrier system, known as MOSE, has been successfully activated five times, including over a three-day period last week.
But on Tuesday the barriers were not raised and the city was flooded again.
St. Mark’s Square, one of the lowest parts of the city, was particularly hit, with water up to the thighs.
Claudio Vernier, owner of Al Todaro bar and ice cream parlor, and president of the Associazione Piazza San Marco, told CNN that it was “a dramatic and unexpected event, and one that we think we have left behind.”
“We live it with great anger,” he said.
“It is economically and morally damaging, and it could have been prevented. We know that MOSE exists, we know that it works and was not used.”
The Byzantine Basilica of San Marcos, which dates back to the 11th century, suffered “serious damage”, according to Carlo Alberto Tessarin, on the board of procurators of San Marcos, who oversee the church.
“We are under water to a dramatic extent, the damage is serious,” he said.
The church is still recovering from last year’s flood, the salty water that has corroded the marble-lined interiors. Even after the flood has dried, the marble absorbs the salt, which can spread up to seven meters, degrading the stone as it progresses.
“The basilica is one of the most important works of art in the world and it is being destroyed,” Vernier told CNN.
Permission to raise the barriers
Until December 2021, the MOSE is officially in the testing phase and, as such, is under the jurisdiction of the Italian state.
Once completed, the controls will be handed over to the Venetian authorities, but for the next 12 months, whenever high tide is forecast, they will have to request the national government to activate the barriers.
The lower parts of the city, like St. Mark’s Square, are built just under a meter above the mean level of the tide. This means that they begin to flood when the tides reach just 3 feet above average. The crypt of the basilica is flooded only 65 centimeters.
Last year’s devastating flooding reached 187 centimeters above average.
When city authorities take over, the barriers will be lifted when the tide reaches 110 centimeters above average, a level already seen by 12 percent of the city under water.
But while it’s in its testing phase, it will kick in only when the tide is forecast to exceed the average by 130 centimeters, by which time nearly half of Venice is already under water. At this point, although it may be a centimeter or two in the highest parts of the city, St. Mark’s Square is already knee-deep.
An inaccurate weather forecast
On Tuesday, the tide level reached 138 centimeters above average, well above the level at which the barriers should be activated.
But the weather forecast only predicted a 125-centimeter tide, just two inches below the level at which the barriers are automatically raised. The system did not activate.
As the weather worsened, city authorities sent alerts to residents warning them to be prepared for flooding. The barriers take several hours to rise, and by the time it became clear how high the tide would be, it was too late to take action.
At the event, half of the city was under water, even reaching the elevated walkways in St. Mark’s Square, which are generally cantilevered over lower flood levels.
Vernier is convinced that it was a wrong decision, even at that time.
“Italy is having historically bad and unpredictable weather right now,” he said, arguing that authorities should have taken the precaution of raising the barriers.
“It is decided based on a weather forecast, and no weather forecast is perfect. Five centimeters can make a big difference and cause enormous damage, and that’s what we saw yesterday.”
Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst
On Tuesday, however, he spent much of the afternoon lifting furniture and belongings off the floor and cleaning up after about an inch of water entered his apartment.
“Although that doesn’t sound like much, it means that you have to lift everything up first and make sure there is nothing on the ground,” he said.
“Then you have to wait for the water to come in, wait for it to come out and then clean the interior for hours – you have to clean the apartment over and over again.
“Then you wait for it to dry, and only then you put your belongings down. You basically lose a whole day, just to be able to be home.”
However, Mr. Fagarazzi still believes in MOSE. “I trust him 100%, but he will not stop climate change or solve all of Venice’s problems,” he said.
“We expected it [the events of last year] It would never happen again, but since the MOSE is not finished yet, we knew it could happen. Venetians must hope for the best but prepare for the worst. “
‘We couldn’t handle another’
Valeria Duflot, co-founder of Venezia Autentica, agrees.
“High water [flooding] it’s always been a part of life in Venice, “he told CNN.” Although events like yesterday are not fun, cause damage and waste time because we have to lift everything off the ground, Venetians know how to handle it.
“What we couldn’t handle would be another extreme flood like we saw last year.
“But with MOSE working, even raising it to 130 centimeters, we shouldn’t see that again.”
But it emphasizes that flood barriers are not the only thing required.
“Beyond the well-known phenomenon of local community displacement, it is recognized that mass tourism aggravates the impact of climate change, and it is urgent that we work to transform it now,” he says.
Vernier says that when MOSE was planned decades ago, it was estimated that it would need to be raised whenever sea level reached 110 centimeters above average, which, at the time, happened a couple of times a year.
“Now with the climate crisis worsening, the water level is always higher and we see that kind of tidal level 20 times a year,” he said.
“What will happen in 30 years?”
With more bad weather expected in the coming days, flood barriers were raised overnight.
A 123-centimeter high tide was recorded Wednesday morning, with 135 centers scheduled for Thursday and 140 centers for Friday. The MOSE will activate for both.
Meanwhile, the Venice authorities are seeking more voice in the decision to lift the barriers.
He added that there was a pressing need to “shorten the chain of command.”