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Venice, which is built on 118 small islands in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon at the tip of the Adriatic Sea in Northern Italy, is no stranger to floods. The picturesque city experiences water surges from the rising tides at least four times a year, usually during winter.
However, the 1.87-meter (6.2-foot) tide that swept through the city on November 12, 2019, was one of the highest ever experienced, second only to the 1.94-meter (6.23-foot) wave that inundated Venice in 1966. To make matters worse, it was followed by two consecutive water surges, both topping 1.5 meters (5 feet), on November 15 and 17, 2019. The rapid succession of the acqua alta, or high tides, covered over 80 percent of the city of canals, causing widespread destruction to museums, homes, and businesses.
Though difficult, it is always important to find a silver lining in the wake of such events. In Venice, it has come in the form of the "Angels of the Salt"— hundreds of youth volunteers who have descended upon the beautiful city to help with the clean-up efforts and to save important artifacts. The youngsters, who come from all over Italy, were alerted to the situation by Venice Calls, a local outreach organization comprising 35 students, aged between 18 and 25.
Its spokesperson, 25-year-old Piero Risica, told CNN, "When we saw the historic flooding on Tuesday night [November 12], we immediately started to gather volunteers to help the city. The first day we were 200 in the Telegram group and on the ground. Yesterday 550, and today more than 1,700."
In addition to helping drain the flood waters from residences and businesses, the young volunteers are also collecting the garbage and water-damaged appliances and taking them to recycling centers. "During the high water, people throw away garbage in the street out of necessity," Risica explains. "But that creates huge problems for the lagoon because it damages its ecosystem, so the lagoon is not able to heal itself and mitigate its problems."
They have also been salvaging ancient sheet music at Venice's Music Conservatory, whose archives suffered substantial water damage. Thanks to the work of volunteers like viola student Irene Maria Giussani, who has been painstakingly using absorbent paper to prevent the ink from spreading, the center has been able to salvage some 164 feet of historic manuscripts, dating from as far back as the 1500s.
Anna Dumont, an American Ph.D. student researching Venetian textiles from the 19th and 20th centuries, is dedicating her efforts to reclaiming precious books from the collection stored at the Querini Stampalia Foundation. "So right now, we're taking books that are wet with saltwater, and we are, page by page, putting paper towels in between the pages to soak up the water and hopefully save the books," she says.
Though the flood waters have now receded, locals worry that the exceptionally high tides, attributed to rising sea levels, may be the new norm. “We are used to flooding, and we know how to deal with it, but my generation has never seen anything like this,” says Venice resident Alessandro Guggia. Many believe the recent disaster could be the tipping point for residents already on edge, and will further reduce the city's population, which has already declined from a high of 75,000 in 1950 to just 52,000 now.
What's frustrating Venetians is that the devastation could have been avoided if the Moveable Barrier System (MOSE) had been in place. The infrastructure project to place moveable floodgates that would stop the high tides from engulfing the city has been under construction since 2003, and has already cost Italian taxpayers $5 billion. However, due to the cost overruns, government official corruption, and opposition from environmentalists concerned about the project's impact on the fragile canal ecosystem, it is nowhere close to completion. Hopefully, the recent floods will spur the Italian government into action to make MOSE a reality.
Resources: NPR.org, CNN.com,CSMonitor.com, Vox.com