Violent thunderstorms, small tornadoes that blew roofs off homes, and hurricane-force winds lashed Italy from Piedmont to Sicily early this week, leaving at least 11 people dead, many more injured and firefighters and other rescue workers scrambling to respond to emergency calls.
In Venice, ferocious winds drove the high tide to more than 61 inches above average sea level Monday, one of the highest levels ever recorded, plunging much of the city under water. It was the highest flood in a decade in Venice, although far short of the record, more than 76 inches above sea level, set in November 1966.
Venetians and tourists tottered on raised walkways throughout the city, while others waded through thigh-high water. Many shops and restaurants flooded when barriers across doorways failed to keep the water out.
Some tourists decided to go for a swim in the famed St. Mark’s Square, in front of the city’s cathedral.
The cathedral itself was damaged by flooding as water submerged part of the floor in the central part of the basilica for only the fifth recorded time in its nine-century history, officials said. The water covered “several dozens of square meters” of the marble pavement in front of the altar of the Madonna Nicopeia, a 12th century icon, and submerged the baptistery, the board responsible for the building said in a statement.
Near the covered entrance to the basilica, the mosaic floor was under as much as 35 inches of water, it said, “soaking the monumental bronze doors, columns and marble.” Water levels remained above ground in the basilica for 16 hours.
“It may not be visible to the eye, but structures age because of the salt water drenching the bricks, which were not meant to remain underwater for long; that goes for bronze, too,” said Pierpaolo Campostrini, one of the board members. “The bricks are like sponges, and if the water levels don’t drop, the water rises several meters to the mosaic level.”
“In one day, the basilica aged 20 years,” he said.
An editorial Tuesday in the Venice daily Il Gazzettino asked what had happened to the Moses Project, the divisive, still-unfinished, multibillion-dollar system of floodgates that has been under construction for years. Venice, built on a lagoon of the Adriatic on Italy’s northeastern coast, has always been vulnerable to flooding, and the system of barriers is supposed to offer some protection as global warming and rising seas make the threat worse.
“If there was one day it would have been useful, it was yesterday,” the editorial read.
Campostrini, of St. Mark’s, agreed.
“That event shouldn’t have happened, not if the Moses Project had been operational,” he said.
The situation was equally dramatic in other Italian regions.
Winds reached 112 mph in Liguria, on Italy’s northwest coast, one of the hardest-hit regions. The Italian news agency ANSA described a “massacre of yachts” in the town of Rapallo, near Genoa, where dozens of boats moored in the port broke loose and crashed against the shore, or were driven out to sea.
A storm destroyed the provincial road to Portofino, isolating the picturesque coastal town and stranding residents and tourists. ANSA reported that the eldest son of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Pier Silvio, was stranded with his family in the area, in the castle that he owns. Pier Silvio is deputy chairman and chief executive of the family media group Mediaset.
Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes in towns in the mountainous Trentino-Alto Adige region, northwest of Venice, after rivers rose over their banks. Newspapers described fish swimming in the streets of one town.
In some places, hillsides soaked by heavy rain gave way.
The operational command of the Civil Protection Department met late Monday to coordinate and deploy disaster relief teams throughout the country, where winds and rains continued with force Tuesday.
Schools remained closed Tuesday in many regions. Century-old pine trees toppled in Rome, blocking roads and clogging traffic.
In Venice, the city’s high-water telephone message system warned citizens that high tides Tuesday and Wednesday would be unusually severe, but not as bad as Monday’s. A “code orange” was in place, with flooding expected to reach more than 43 inches above sea level.
In Naples, many trees fell in the cemetery of Poggioreale, famed for its tombs and monuments, which was closed to the public.
Mayor Luigi de Magistris of Naples said Tuesday that the city had been exposed to “an atmospheric earthquake.”