After decades of bureaucratic delays, corruption and opposition from environmental groups, sea walls designed to protect Venice from ‘acqua alta’, or high water, went up on Saturday, testing their ability to combat the city’s increasingly threatening floods.
Officials said that by 10 am, all 78 floodgates securing three inlets to the Venetian lagoon had been raised, and even when the tide reached as high as four feet, water levels inside the lagoon remained stable.
Alvise Papa, the director of the Venice department that monitors high tides said that there wasn’t even a puddle in St Mark’s Square, and he said that had the flood barriers not been raised, approximately half the city’s streets would have been under water, and visitors to St Mark’s Square, which floods when the tide nears three feet, would have been wading in a foot and a half of water.
Luigi Brugnaro, Venice’s recently re-elected mayor said with pride and joy that everything was dry.
Designed some four decades ago to help protect Venice from flooding, the mobile barrier system was stalled by cost overruns, corruption, and resistance from environmental and conservation groups.
The cost of the system tripled from initial estimates, and a 2014 bribery scandal led to the detention of the then-mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, and dozens of others, including politicians and businessmen involved in the project.
Giorgio Orsoni and some of the others charged were exonerated.
Giuseppe Fiengo, one of the commissioners who had led the project since 2014 said that it was an extremely challenging situation, but gradually they’ve been able to settle things, but he said that for the first time, with high water, Venice didn’t flood.
The floodgates had been tested several times over the past summer, but under less threatening weather conditions than those on Saturday.
Alberto Scotti, the engineer who designed them said that this time they raised them to defend Venice.
The system is not quite operational yet – some infrastructure still needs to be completed, and workers haven’t yet been thoroughly trained, so Saturday’s procedure was technically a test.
Alberto Scotti said that the test had a purpose – to ensure the safety of the city.
The construction firms building the system have until December 2021 to complete the work.
When it’s completely operational, the floodgates will be activated whenever the tide reaches three and a half feet. Until then, the floodgates will be utilised when the tide reaches four feet, as it did on Saturday.
However, will reducing its short term effects sidestep a fatal outcome for the city? Or is it just a temporary solution to more damaging tides due to advancing sea levels, warmer oceans and increased incidence of more robust weather storms?
But I’m sure Noah and his Arc would be extremely proud, and it’s probably only a matter of time before it’s an aquatic attraction.