VENICE, Italy (Reuters) – A long-delayed flood barrier successfully protected Venice from a high tide for the first time on Saturday, bringing relief and smiles to the lagoon city following years of repeated inundations.
“Today, everything is dry. We stopped the sea,” city mayor Luigi Brugnaro told reporters after raising a glass in celebration with some of the engineers and officials responsible for the multi-billion euro project known as Mose.
“Lots of bad things have happened here, but now something wonderful has happened,” he said.
The network of 78 bright yellow barriers that guard the entrance to the delicate Venetian lagoon lifted from the sea bed as the tide, driven by strong winds and rain, started to climb.
City officials had forecast a tide of 130 cm (4.27 ft), well below the devastating 187 cm tide that battered Venice last November, but enough to leave low-lying areas deep under water.
Expecting the worst, workmen had laid out raised walkways in especially vulnerable places, including the often packed St. Mark’s Square. In the event, the tide only amounted to 70 cm, leaving the city’s piazzas and pathways unscathed.
“Today is an important day, an historic day because we should have been full of water by now and instead we are dry,” said Massimo Milanese, manager of the Lavena Cafe in St. Mark’s Square.
The worst floods in more than 50 years left St Mark’s Square submerged under a metre of water last November, underlining the growing environmental threat to one of the world’s most famous cultural sites.
Engineers had promised that Mose would save the day, but sceptics questioned whether the system, plagued by corruption, cost overruns and prolonged delays, would be up to the task.
Venice’s floods, “acqua alta” (high water) in Italian, are caused by a combination of factors exacerbated by climate change – from rising sea levels and unusually high tides to land subsidence that has caused the ground level of the city to sink.
Mose is designed to protect Venice from tides of up to 3 metres, well beyond current records, and Saturday’s success raised hopes of a bright future for the city, which has suffered from a calamitous fall in tourism due to COVID-19.
“This is a beautiful day for Venice, which has finally been saved,” the ruling Democratic Party said in a statement.
Writing by Crispian Balmer, editing by Louise Heavens and Hugh Lawson