On Tuesday night I barely slept. The WhatsApp group with my colleagues from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection was bubbling with a jarring mixture of shock, fear and excitement.
“Have you seen the picture from Albergo Gritti?”
The photograph of the flooded scene at the five star luxury hotel was eerily reminiscent of James Cameron’s Titanic.
That evening the water levels reached 187 cm, just 7 cm from the highest in recorded history. As I listened to the wind whistling outside my windows, jolting the shutters back and forth with such vigour that chips of wood were flung into the storm, it felt as though the earth around me was melting into apocalypse.
Luckily my apartment in Dorsoduro (one of the lower areas of Venice) is on the third floor. Cup of tea in hand and radiators up on full, I scuttled downstairs to observe the damage. The water had subsumed the first handful of steps leading up to the first floor. I took a picture to send to my colleagues with the caption: “This is how Benjamin Guggenheim must have felt!” (Peggy’s father died honourably on the sinking of the infamous vessel in 1912). As I waded through the debris the following morning (work was cancelled), I felt ashamed for the naïvety of my jovial comment.
The alarms that wailed through the night heralded an eery precursor to the destruction. But unlike a siren, these alarms ascended a scale. An initial alert signal would be followed by an increase in pitch for every 10 cm over a metre that the tide was forecast to reach. But as the alarms do not cater for such extremities, they cannot signal an acqua alta of over 140 cm. Whilst Venice is a city accustomed to flooding, without any flood defences, nothing could prevent the consequences of such an extreme water level.
On the evening of the 12th November 2019, the neighbouring island of Pellestrina had to be evacuated; one man had been electrocuted and another died in the same building under unknown circumstances.
The total cost of the damage to the city, whilst not exact, is currently thought to be in the hundreds of millions of euros. One need look no further than the widely-circulating images of the flooded San Marco to grasp the severity of the destruction. And whilst the art of the Guggenheim is safe, other collections such as the Ca’Pesaro museum might not have been so fortunate, as a short circuit caused a fire to break out on the ground floor, all of which a colleague of mine witnessed from his window.
On Wednesday 13th November, I slipped on my wellies and ventured out into the broken city. Wandering down Calle Nova Sant’ Agnese, door after door was wedged wide open, revealing teams of coworkers or inhabitants sweeping out the water and attempting to expel the waste of the canal from their building. One man on Via Garibaldi had laid out the entire contents of his antiques shop onto the street, to dry at low tide. Damp photographs and postcards with curling edges, books with crinkled pages, lamps with delicate shades chimed morosely of the city’s vulnerability.
But whilst this shop-owner’s possessions were laid out in a semi-orderly fashion, the rest of Venice’s streets were littered more chaotically. On the same day, I saw a team of firemen retrieving a host of sunken chairs and tables from a canal. Shoes, umbrellas, books, jackets, unhinged doors, beached boats, a printer – all of these could be seen scattered in the most unlikely places.
What amazes me most is the collective resilience of the Venetian population; this flooding is tide-dependent, and as soon as the water recedes, the locals are swiftly to work to restore normality. Until the next acqua alta.
At dinner last night, in one of the few restaurants that was open in the dimly lit city (few street lights were functioning due to issues with electricity), I got chatting to one of the waiters. Living in Venice certainly doesn’t come cheap, but to hear that very few locals buy insurance due to the insanely high costs, was news to me. Buying a new fridge, freezer and stove after severe events such as these, proves to be the cheaper option.
As acqua alta continues its reign of chaos, I can’t help but think the cycle of devastation is yet to be completed. Whilst I sit here writing this, the water level has already reached its peak level of the day at 160 cm. As extreme weather and associated events sweep across the globe at this very moment, this acqua alta is far more significant than a ‘cool thing to experience whilst living in Venice’. Seeing the repercussions at first hand makes that pretty clear.