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Flooding makes case for barriers

Venice project half complete

(Luigi Costantini/Associated Press)
By Colleen Barry
Associated Press / December 5, 2008
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VENICE - The luxurious Bauer hotel was inundated with calls of concern and cancellations this week, but was spared the floodwaters that swamped most of the city.

Just a few steps from the city's lowest point, St. Mark's Square, the Bauer and other Venetian businesses kept the flooding at bay, using metal barriers to block doorways.

It's a lesson that may help wash away remaining resistance to an elaborate project to build mobile barriers that will try to prevent flooding from reaching Venice and its artistic treasures.

Monday's deluge, Venice's largest in 22 years, has caused as-yet uncalculated damage and scared away tourists, who are the lifeblood of the city's economy. Francesca Bortolotto Possati, the Bauer's owner, said people around the world responded to the flood "like it was a tsunami."

While Venetians take floods in stride, the swirling waters that burst the banks of the city's famed canals have convinced many of the wisdom of the $5.43 billion project - nicknamed Moses - to build towering metal gates to protect the city.

Moses is nearly half finished and is expected to be operational by 2014 - two years behind schedule due to financial problems.

If the retractable gates had been working at the time of the 60-inch floods, they would have been raised from their resting place on the sea floor by 6 a.m.

"Since the floods, people keep stopping me and asking me when the barriers will be completed. They say, 'Don't slow down, don't be late,' " said Flavia Faccioli, spokeswoman for the New Venice consortium administering the project.

On Monday, with the tide forecast to reach 51 inches, city officials issued a series of alarms starting at 6:30 a.m. that reached thousands of citizens via text message, telephone, fax, and siren. New alarms sounded every time the forecast flooding rose.

"Already Sunday night the forecast was for 47 inches, which means flooding in 35 percent of the city. That alone was a signal for me to be alert. And those who were, sustained minor damages," said Paolo Canestrelli, director of the city's tidal monitoring office.

But Bortolotto Possati, a third-generation Venetian, said flood warnings, even at 47 inches, have become so common that residents shrug them off.

A transport strike on Monday exacerbated the emergency for the many business owners who live on the mainland: There was no way to reach their stores to erect barriers and remove goods from floors and low shelves.

St. Mark's Square floods when the tide reaches just 31.5 inches. Because of the risk, city officials have ensured that Venice's artistic treasures are protected from floods up to 6.6 feet by keeping them above that level.

Moses would be raised when the tide reaches 43 inches, which happens on average four times a year, for a total of 55 times in the last decade, officials said. Venice has experienced only three floods worse than Monday's since 1923. And the rarity of truly damaging waters submerging 90 percent of the city - 12 since 1936 - has become an argument for the antibarrier camp.

"The exceptional events happen once every 15 to 20 years. Is it worth doing such a huge and irreversible project to stop water every once in 20 years?" asked Luciano Mazzolin of the No Moses Committee.

Venice has sought protection from flooding for centuries.

Floods during the first millennium were generally caused by the two main rivers that empty into the lagoon, not by the sea.

The sea became the main problem only after passages were dredged to allow modern ships into the port in the 1800s.

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