Venice Flooding: When 60 Minutes first reported on Project Moses

A system to prevent flooding in the Italian city has been decades in the making. Bob Simon first reported on it in 2001

Rewind: Venice's Project Moses

Spread over 118 tiny islands in the middle of a lagoon, Venice is accustomed to flooding. For centuries, the acqua alta, or high water, has regularly spilled out of the city's canals, turning plazas into pools and streets into rivers. 
But now because of climate change, this "floating city" is drowning. 
60 Minutes correspondent John Dickerson reports this week on Venice's recent unprecedented flooding. In one month alone last year, the city experienced three of the highest floods it has ever recorded.

One solution Venetians are preparing is a controversial project called MOSE. It is a system of 78 retractable gates that will be deployed to block exceptionally high tides—and it is decades in the making. 60 Minutes first reported on the project almost 20 years ago. 

As correspondent Bob Simon first explained in 2001, the system will employ mobile gates at the three openings to the lagoon which surrounds Venice. The gates can sit idle in the water during low tide, and during storms, they can be raised to provide a barrier between the lagoon and the Adriatic Sea.

At the time, the plan was called Project Moses. Today, it's called MOSE, an acronym for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, or "experimental electromechanical module." It still alludes to Moses, or Mosè in Italian, whose biblical narrative includes the parting of the Red Sea—much like MOSE's gates are intended to do. 

Venice in 2001

But as Simon reported in 2001, the project has needed its own miracle. Squabbling between Italy's politicians had kept the system mired in debate for years.

"If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, the Italians have been fiddling while Venice drowns," Simon reported. "It took nearly 20 years for Project Moses to be drawn up, and Italy has been arguing about it for the past 10. And Venetians … fear it will take another disastrous flood to shake Italy's politicians."

Work on MOSE began two years later, in 2003—more than 20 years after the proposal was submitted. And MOSE may still need divine intervention today: After corruption scandals and engineering challenges postponed its progress, it is still incomplete. Alessandro Soru, the project's lead engineer, estimates the gates will not be ready until the end of 2021. 

Simon in 2001 understood the consequences of delay. He quoted Marcel Proust, who wrote, "When I came to Venice, my dream became my address."

"He, like every worshiper of Venice, realized that only the Italians could have built this city," Simon said, "and perhaps equally, only the Italians can sit by and watch it disappear."