A state of emergency was declared in Venice over dangerously high tides that invaded cafes, stores and other businesses Tuesday. The water level hit 6.14 feet on Tuesday evening, according to the city's tide forecast office. The high tides reached the second-highest level ever recorded in the city and just 2½ inches lower than the historic 1966 flood.
Sirens sounded to warn people in Venice of the rising water, or "acqua alta," and authorities closed nursery schools as a precaution. Another round of exceptionally high water followed Wednesday and prompted calls to better protect the historic city from costly damage.
A top tourist attraction, the Ducal Palace, just off St. Mark's Square, tweeted that it was open "despite the exceptional tide," and advised visitors to use the raised walkways leading to its entrance.
Many hotels keep disposable knee-high plastic boots handy for tourists. Venetians' wardrobes often include over-the-knee rubber boots.
"Venice is on its knees,'' Mayor Luigi Brugnaro said on Twitter. "St. Mark's Basilica has sustained serious damage, like the entire city and its islands."
One death was blamed on the flooding, on the barrier island of Pellestrina. A man in his 70s was apparently electrocuted when he tried to start a pump in his dwelling, said Danny Carrella, an official on the island of 3,500 inhabitants.
In Policoro, a southern town in an area known for its ancient Greek ruins, a whirlwind ripped the roofs off two homes, but the occupants inside escaped injury, Italian news reports said.
In that same region of Basilicata, swaths of the tourist town of Matera, famed for its ancient cave dwellings, were flooded after heavy rains.
In Venice, the crypt beneath St. Mark's Basilica was inundated for only the second time in its history. Damage was also reported at the Ca' Pesaro modern art gallery, where a short circuit set off a fire, and at La Fenice theater, where authorities turned off electricity as a precaution after the control room was flooded.
Italy's culture minister, Dario Franceschini, said no damage had been reported to art collections in museums throughout the city. Many sites remained closed to tourists, and La Fenice canceled concerts Wednesday and Thursday evening.
Tourists floated suitcases through St. Mark's Square, where officials removed walkways to prevent them from drifting away. Wooden boards that shop and hotel owners have placed on doors in previous floods couldn't hold back the water.
The water was so high that nothing less than thigh-high boots afforded protection, and one man was even filmed swimming bare-chested in St. Mark's Square during what appeared to be the height of the flood.
"I have often seen St. Mark's Square covered with water,'' Venice's patriarch, Monsignor Francesco Moraglia, told reporters. "Yesterday there were waves that seemed to be the seashore."
Rising sea levels because of climate change coupled with Venice's well-documented sinking make the city built amid a system of canals particularly vulnerable. The sea level in Venice is 4 inches higher than it was 50 years ago, according to the city's tide office.
Damage included five ferries that serve as water buses, a critical means of transportation. Photos on social media showed taxi boats and gondolas grounded on walkways flanking canals.
State of emergency
Brugnaro said damage would reach hundreds of millions of euros. He called on Rome to declare a state of emergency.
"We are not just talking about calculating the damages, but of the very future of the city,'' Brugnaro told reporters. "Because the population drain also is a result of this."
He described "untold damages, to houses, shops, activities, not to mention monuments and works of art. We risked our lives as well."
The flooding was caused by southerly winds that pushed a high tide, exacerbated a full moon, into the city.
Brugnaro blamed climate change for the "dramatic situation" and called for a speedy completion of a long-delayed project to construct offshore barriers.