San Martino blows through


It amuses me to see boats floating up so high. In a really serious acqua alta, they can go high enough to slip off the top of their pilings, though this enterprising/lazy/cheap person has opted to skip buying pilings and tied his destroyer to the barrier instead. This is risky, considering that the force of the tide (either rising or falling) can pull the boat down on one side. Then the boat fills with water.  I have seen this with my own eyes; they say the boat has “hanged” itself, just like a person.  By the way, I notice that this owner is unnaturally concerned with the potential contact between the hull and the fondamenta.  Five fenders?  Are we waiting for a tsunami?

Saint Martin’s day yesterday was a lot more emphatic than it usually is with the banging of pots and pans by kids on a quest for candy.  In addition to the kids, and the traditional cookies, we got acqua alta — the second visitation of the season, and it was noticeable.  The news tonight reported that it had reached 149 cm (4.8 feet)  above sea level, the sixth highest since 1872.  (The highest on record remains November 4, 1966, which was 190 cm/6.2 feet).

Water didn’t enter our hovel, but it didn’t miss by much.

We heard the sirens sound, as expected, two hours before the peak predicted for 8:20 AM.  There were three extra tones, which indicated an anticipated maximum of 120 cm (3.9 feet).  Not long after that, we heard the sirens again, this time with four tones (140 cm/4.5 feet).  At that point we sat up and began to pay attention.

What made this event more interesting than usual wasn’t simply the height of the water, it was the speed of the wind — I mean, the force of the scirocco, which is always a major factor in keeping the lagoon in when it wants to go out.  The wind was blowing around 40 km/hr (24 mph), with gusts of 55 km/hr (34 mph).

All this was part of a major weather system that hit large areas of Italy leaving real drama and destruction in its wake — mudslides, blocked roads, fallen trees, and more mayhem than we could ever manage here, thank God.

Naturally we went out to buy the newspaper and look around the neighborhood.  I don’t usually take pictures of acqua alta anymore, as they have long since become repetitive.  But this was toward the unusual side of the daily scale of nuisances.

Of course I’m glad the water didn’t exceed our top step, but if it had, I’d still be alive.  This is the first of my annual pleas to the world to  ignore the wailing and gnashing and published or broadcast claims that the city has been driven to its knees.  I do not consider the fact that a tourist has had wade across the Piazza San Marco carrying her suitcase on her head an indication of anything larger than a temporary annoyance — it certainly does not make  even the tiniest wail begin to form anywhere in my thorax. Anyone who has been dealing with Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath — not to mention people in stricken areas of Tuscany and Umbria — would find the suggestion that a large but temporary inconvenience could be compared to life-threatening catastrophe not only ridiculous, but offensive.  By noon the water was all gone and the streets were drying off.

We hadn’t even reached the end of the fondamenta before we got inconfutable evidence that in spite of the blasting wind and rain and water up to our thighs that the tide had turned: Under the boats, the  anguele (Atherina boyeri)  were all facing upstream, against the tide.

As usual, somebody had left a bag of garbage out on the street. You can’t pick them all up as they float around and away, but this was the first one we came across and Lino decided he had to do something about it. Nobody would have noticed, or cared, but I was impressed and I know he felt better.

The owner of our favorite cafe didn’t even try to keep the water out, though she did take all the boxes of panettone out of the window display and stacked them up on the counter along the wall. As she told us later, there’s no point in putting a barrier across the door — the water just comes in some other way. In the case of the cafe across the street, jets of water were coming in through fissures in the wall even as he was pumping the water out. Meanwhile, this lady is here every day, reading. Why let a little water ruin a perfectly fine routine?

Many of the shops along via Garibaldi were being pumped out — it was like walking around the gardens of the Villa d’Este with all the fountains.

I was struck by yet another illustration of the fact that Venice is not perfectly flat. We were sloshing along in our hipwaders, while just beyond the gate there was high ground. When the acqua isn’t alta, you’d think it was all level.

As you see, not everybody got the memo that the city was afflicted with a desperate situation. This is Venice with acqua alta: People waist-deep in the Piazza San Marco carrying their suitcases on their heads, people sitting in cafes as the water laps at their chairs, and some people (they were French, for the record) who think it’s all more fun than watching elephants ride a roller-coaster. So take your pick. Tragedy? Comedy? Farce?

As we got closer to the Riva dei Sette Martiri facing the lagoon, the reality of the tide going out began to really mean something. The combined power of the water channeling out of the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal toward the sea hit the embankment approximately at the end of via Garibaldi. Lino said he’d never seen anything like this, and he’s seen every acqua alta in the past 70 years. Walking against this was like walking against an Alpine torrent. (Apologies for the blur — the wind and rain were also picking up force here.)

Someone pauses to assess the situation as we near the edge of the Riva. As you can tell, there’s relatively little to assess. If you’re still standing up, you’re okay.

The only yacht moored near the Arsenal was in a fairly unpleasant situation. Perhaps the waves wouldn’t have lifted it up onto the pavement, but it was making progress to having its expensive hull  well and truly bashed and dented. The only two people on board were working like madmen to push the fenders between the stone and the metal. But it was a doomed endeavor. Why? Because the wind and water were pushing against them, and for some incomprehensible reason they had not slackened one of the lines attaching the boat to the fondamenta. Even if these two were Samson and Hercules, they couldn’t have pushed the boat out further than the rope would let them. And yet they kept trying. I wanted to go say “Untie the line!” but Lino said “Don’t even think of getting yourself involved, for the sake of the souls of all my dead relatives.”

I have the utmost respect for the fact that they were giving it all they had to protect the boat (though then again, why it took them so long to remember the fenders is a mystery. The high-water siren sounded at 6:00 AM and it’s now 9:30.) Instinct clearly has taken over, because two people with a combined weight of perhaps 300 pounds couldn’t possibly shift an object weighing at least a ton being pushed by the combined strength of Poseidon and Aeolus. I hope they’re okay today. I hope they didn’t get fined, or fired, when the boss called in to check on his boat.

Despite the surging water and lashing waves and all, here is undeniable proof that the tide is falling: Detritus left behind on the steps of the bridges. I don’t usually find trash appealing, but this was a beautiful thing to see.




Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Categories : Acqua Alta, Water


  1. JoAnn Locktov
    Twitter: jolocktov

    I am so grateful for this post. I found you through a comment left on Brainpickings. I’ve been trying to describe the Venetian response to Sunday’s flooding, my dismay with the media and the context. Nothing could say it better than your wise post. grazie mille.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      How intriguing to learn that I might be embedded in a comment on a site I know nothing about (which I could say about almost all sites, actually….). It’s extremely gratifying. And thank you mille volte for your support! If you have any time to waste, which I doubt, search my blog under “acqua alta” and you’ll find more than you probably ever want to read.

  2. Simon Barnes says:

    Really interested to see – we often rent apartment in campo arsenale and shop in via Garibaldi. Did see one big aqua alta in November 2000 when we were staying in hotel near St Marks. Not as high as this, though! It was amazing to me how quickly everything got back to normal once tide went out.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I’m heartened to hear a sane comment on the situation. Things got back to normal because acqua alta itself is normal. Venice has been getting back to normal for more than a thousand years. Gad. (That “gad” was not addressed to you.)

  3. Susie L says:

    Yay, Erla is back!

    Thanks for such an informative and entertaining post. I would really like it if my well-meaning friends and acquaintances would stop telling me that 70% of Venice is underwater, tourists are being swept out to sea, etc.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Thanks for the encouragement! It’s heartening to hear that what feels like my lonely doomed crusade to stem the madness (among outside onlookers — the Venetian madness is beyond remedy) is not as lonely as I thought.

  4. Another wonderful, well crafted, superbly written on-the-spot report. Thanks for a refreshing change from the hysterical stuff pumped out in the UK by Sky and the BBC [Both seem better at being the news instead of reporting it with accuracy]
    Your blog inspires me as I aspire to reach your levels of journalism.
    You maye be the only z in my address book, so can I be the first to wish you a Happy Christmas?
    Thanks a million.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      You have provided your own mega-dose of inspiration to me — it would appear that my labors are not in vain. I match your million thanks, and of course you can send whatever holiday wishes you feel moved to send, anytime. Christmas, Thanksgiving, National Toothache Day, World Tapir Day and we can even stretch it to Brain Awareness Week which technically is March 10-16, but which I think ought to be extended all year.

  5. Jon says:

    Glad to hear you are doing OK- experienced a similar magnitude almost exactly 4 years ago. It always amazes me how quickly the city returns to normal.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      High water only seems abnormal if you don’t live here. They plow the snow in Boston, and life goes on. Here, we don’t even have to do anything and the water goes away. Sweet!

  6. MaryK says:

    I’m currently in Venice – and was here last Sunday during the acqua alta. With this being my 12th visit during November-December, the occasional high tide just something I factor into my stay. I just stayed in my apartment until it went down….. really not such a trial. I do feel for the residents, businesses and shopkeepers – but life does go on perfectly well.

    I’ve been horrified at how the ‘event’ has been portrayed both on some forums and in some media. Apparently the main TV station in Australia (where I’m from) reported it as the “worst flood in 100 years”!

    Thank you so much for your sensible and comprehensive report.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Yet again, the media seems to have succumbed to collective hysteria. If anyone at Australian TV had looked at the statistics (rather than evidently repeating something somebody had heard or read) they would see that the highest high water of the past 100 years remains the infamous November 4,1966. I thought everybody knew that, but it seems not.

  7. Lynne Otter

    Ciao, I came across your site after a search on Venice, great to find you! I have read all your old posts to gather local information on your city. The recent ones of aqua alta and san martino were quite refreshing. Although l live in the veneto region (valpolicella) l didn’t know the history of san martino. l live in the hills, we do not get floods but l see the water gushing and racing thru the village via a canal down to Verona. I’m waiting for the normal water level to return in venice before l consider a journey…..l didn’t come to Italy for the rain, heh, heh. I look forward to more of your wonderful posts. Ciao

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Thanks for all the attention. If water is gushing through your village via a canal, I presume that, at least in theory, the canal could overflow, which would create a flooding scenario for you which would be worse than here. I hope and trust that doesn’t happen. Come to Venice sometime, there are plenty of days when there’s no water on the ground!

  8. […] November 11, if you’ll cast your minds back, was a day with more than the usual high water.  By “usual,” I don’t mean as in “happens every day” — I mean as in “doesn’t seem strange.” […]