Archive for Acqua Alta


MOSE: drastic surgery

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This is also the lagoon.

This is also the lagoon.

I promise that I will not transform this blog into the daily bulletin from the MOSE hecatomb.

But two days ago (June 14), at the last meeting of the council of ministers, the government did something so extreme — and indisputably necessary and long overdue — that I want at least to make it known.

They abolished the Magistrato alle Acque.  An entire government agency with 500 years of history is no more.  Yesterday it was, today it is not.

Beginning in October, its responsibilities will be “absorbed” by the Inter-regional Director of Public Works of the three contiguous regions of the Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, and Trentino Alto Adige.

Of course this is good, but I feel sick at heart.  Not only because of the annihilation of one of the last tiny links to the Venetian Republic, but because a gesture of this magnitude shows all too vividly the extent of the rot.

People who occasionally had to request a permit for temporary use of a certain stretch of lagoon have long been aware that the Magistrato was as swampy as Reelfoot Lake.  It wouldn’t have been the first city agency whose functionaries accepted the occasional guerdon for speeding up the processing of requests.  I’m not saying the employees of the Magistracy did such a thing.  I’m just saying that if they did, they wouldn’t have been alone.

The MOSE work has made the tides stronger and faster, so the fish are having to work harder at their annual migrations.

The MOSE work has made the tides stronger and faster, which has affected plants, fish and, I presume, also birds. But the floods of water are nothing compared to the floods of payoffs.

The Magistracy of the Waters was established in 1501; it was specifically charged with overseeing the health and security of the lagoon, and any action required — digging, land reclamation, maintenance — had to have its approval.

Care of the lagoon required care of its tributary rivers, too.  Venetian engineers diverted the Po River, for God’s sake; between 1600 and 1604, innumerable men with shovels and wheelbarrows cut Italy’s greatest river at Porto Viro and turned it southward.  There were many reasons for this, some of them political, some economic, but it was also time to limit the amount of sediment that was filling up the lagoon.  The Venetian Republic knew that the care of the lagoon was its primary life insurance.

“Lagoon” (laguna) is a Venetian word, by the way.

But the Magistrato was populated by many individuals who were not all of the same stripe, and in 1678, human nature having demonstrated its impressive dimensions, the Venetian Senate created a group of inquisitors to conduct the legal cases against those accused of having damaged the lagoon.  There must be some diabolical hothouse somewhere that causes little tiny crook seedlings to sprout, then sells them to the Magistrato alle Acque where, in its own special microclimate, they can flourish and grow to be big tall leafy crooks.

In fact, I now learn that this is the third time that the Magistrato has been “suppressed,” as the headlines put it, though it’s the first occasion where the reason was crime.

In 1808, during the brief but eventful French domination of the city (1806-1814), the Viceroy Eugene Beauharnais put an end to it, for reasons I haven’t yet discovered. It didn’t take long for it to become evident that this was an error, the neglect having contributed to an assortment of watery damage.  When the Austrians took over for the first time (1816-1848), they quickly re-established the Magistrato, reorganized it, renamed some departments, applied a coat of varnish and it was good to go again.

In 1866, when Venice and the Veneto became part of the new nation of Italy, the Magistrato was annulled again, and again a series of hydraulic disasters showed what serious consequences could come from indifference to the state of the waterways.

The Magistrato was reformulated for the third time in 1907 as part of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, and its authority expanded to cover the entire hydrological basin of northeast Italy — an enormous watershed of rivers, lakes, and other lagoons stretching from Mantova to Trieste.  Total area of its authority was some 40,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles).  So when we talk about the misfeasance of the Magistrato, we’re not talking about some little local entity that turned out to have just a few bad apples.

I very sincerely hope that Cuccioletta and Piva, in their respective cells awaiting trial, are happy.  Because I’m not, and neither are a whole bunch of other people.

This is a relatively recent lion, and he looks like he's had more than enough of all this.

This is a relatively recent lion, and he looks like he’s had more than enough of all this.


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And speaking of animals

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I suddenly realized that when I was proposing the going-away party for the boy — clothes, but possibly also food, because he must be really hungry by now — I didn’t mention the frog.

That was an oversight. So here’s the plan.

First, the frog would be freed.

Second, he would be given a large pile of small- and medium-sized rocks to throw at the boy.

Third, he would be given a hundred things his heart might desire, from the unlisted phone numbers of Charles Ray (sculptor) and Francois Pinault (collector), to his own private estate with tennis court and helipad in the Great Moss Swamp, to a date with every winner of the Miss Humanity of the Netherlands pageant.  And a huge party at the Waldorf-Astoria for freed dolphins, liberated dancing bears, wounded hedgehogs, rehabilitated slow lorises, and birds whose owners accidentally left their cages open.  He’ll also have his own smorgasbord with all the beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, and Purina Frog Chow he’ll ever want.  And a trampoline.  And a pony.

Lino spotted this gull because of his little identification anklet. Maybe he’s in the bird atlas by now, with a number if not a name.

While we’re on the subject of animals, here’s something you might find interesting.  More than 240 species of birds spend at least some, if not all, of their time in the Venetian lagoon and immediate vicinity.

An article in the Gazzettino announced this fact along with the notice of the publication of a new atlas of birds, the result of five years of data-gathering. For the record, the title is “Uccelli di laguna e di citta’ – L’atlante ornitologico del comune di Venezia 2006-2011,” written by Mauro Bon and Emanuele Stival, ornithologists of the Museum of Natural History, published by Marsilio.

Of these birds, 142 species come only for the winter, 115 come to nest, and about 60 are migrating. If you stop and read that over again, I think you’ll be respectfully amazed.  In fact, the lagoon is at a crucial point on a major north-south flyway, and is one of the largest lagoons left in Europe. It’s far from being just scenery.

Even though I’ve never seen them, I now have learned that there is a Hungarian royal seagull which arrives in the fall, and spends the winter in the Giardini Reali between the Piazza San Marco and the lagoon. And there is an extremely rare black-legged kittiwake that comes from England.

The Little Egret, which is abundant in the lagoon, doesn’t mind looking for a bite wherever the chances seem good, though they seem to be happier pecking through the shallows when the tide is low. There is a tree near the Vignole which at twilight in the summer is almost completely white with the egrets who’ve come to perch there for the night.

I was already interested in birds because rowing around the lagoon at all hours and in all seasons means that you see plenty of them.  For one thing, they’re everywhere.  For another, they’re generally easier to see than fish.

Some of the birds I’ve come to recognize are as much as part of Venice as canals and tourists. The svasso (grebe) and tuffetto (little grebe), only appear in the winter. The cormorants, mallards, seagulls, egrets and herons are here all year. I’ve already gone on too long about my passion for blackbirds (a few months per year), and I’ve never bothered to mention pigeons because there’s nothing worth saying about them.  They are the roaches of the avian world; they’ll be here pecking around and crooning after the last nuclear device explodes. I am prepared for hostile letters from pigeon-feeders.

There is one kingfisher who I watch for as we row behind the Vignole; all you can see is a flash of iridescent blue-green flitting through the trees and over the water. I wish he’d hold still somewhere just for a minute, but he’s not interested in being admired.

In the plush summer nights we almost always hear a solitary owl called a soleta (civetta in Italian), somewhere high in the trees in the Public Gardens.  He or she makes a soft one-tone hoot, repeated pensively at perfectly regular intervals.  It’s like a metronome, far away. It goes on for hours.  It’s very comforting.

A young Little Gull, photographed in Northumberland. Maybe he’s thinking about his Venetian vacation.

For two days not long ago we were startled to see a fluffy young gull we’d never seen before, standing on the fondamenta gazing out at the lagoon. Determined research revealed that it is a Little Gull. We haven’t seen it since.

And one magical winter day a trio of swans flew over us.  You hardly ever see the wild swans, but here were three, flying so low that I could see their long necks undulating slightly and hear a curious murmur from their throats.

Many of these birds depend on organisms and elements in the lagoon wetlands which exist because of, or are replenished by, acqua alta.  If so many people who never leave the city didn’t get so worked up about having to put on boots, the water could continue to provide for lots of creatures who like being here too.  Maybe your tourist or trinket-seller doesn’t care about the birds, but the birds probably don’t care about the Doge’s Palace and Harry’s Bar. Just saying.

A luscious look at acqua alta in the lagoon. A soaking marshy islet looks even better to a bird than it does to me.

This is the single grey heron I’ve seen here, always fishing between Sant’ Andrea and Sant’ Erasmo.

And of course the indefatigable seagulls. They look more attractive out here than plodding along the fondamentas ripping open plastic bags and strewing the garbage all around. Lino says nobody ever saw gulls in the canals, much less on the streets, when he was a boy. The same with cormorants, who we sometimes see fishing in our canal.

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Why blame anybody?

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The peak tide forecast for last night at 11:20 PM was 130 cm.

At around 8:30 we heard the siren, with three tones.  Not a happy sound, but one that does not portend water in our house.

About an hour later, sirens again, with four tones.  Not happy at all, though we still have a chance of staying dry. Evidently the scirocco had gotten stronger.  In fact, we could (as usual in these cases) hear it making its customary deep roar out along the Lido’s Adriatic beaches.

At 10:00 PM, a look out the window revealed water ambling inland.  It had just gone past our first step, which is fine because as long as it’s moving forward it’s not moving upward (at least, not much).

At 10:30 PM, another look showed that the water wasn’t ambling inland anymore.  It was just sitting there, with a few little ripples here and there. And no longer did we hear the wind roaring, which meant the wind had either dropped or changed direction.

Reprieved!  Because the fact that the tide was due to turn in less than an hour (an imprecise prediction, but that’s what we were going by) meant that at 10:30 the tide was already entering the phase known to us as “stanca,” or “tired.”  Slowing down.  Losing headway. Coasting in neutral.  However you want to think of it.

Therefore the tide wouldn’t be rising much more, if at all, before it began to go out.

At 11:00 PM, the tide was visibly receding.  Early!  I’ll take it!

So, instead of getting water nearly up to our top step, as per the warning sirens, it didn’t even make it halfway up the first step.  My guess is that it would have been a two-siren height, at best.

The traditional conundrum: Which is worse?  When the Tide Center’s prediction turns out to be right?  Or when it’s wrong?

If you saw this, would your first instinct be to call some city office to find out if it might be going to rain?

I haven’t read today’s newspaper’s account of all this because they become pretty monotonous. One truly monotonous component is the assortment of complaints from people about how inaccurate the forecast was, and the weary reply from the Tide Center that with the few coins a year they’re allotted as financing, it’s a wonder they get anything done at all.

I’d like to add another viewpoint in support of the Tide Center, run by the exemplary Paolo Canestrelli, who has been dealing with this for decades.  (I would bet money that when he retires — the prospect of which must be the one thing that keeps him going — he is going to go live in a yurt on the steppes of Outer Mongolia.)

Here is my viewpoint: Why cast blame on the Tide Center? It was established in the early Seventies in order to alert the city to possible exceptional high tides — a decision clearly inspired by the Infamous Acqua Alta (IAA, to me) of 1966.

But there had been plenty of high waters up until then. Venetians had grown up with it, and most of them could recognize the signs of impending high water. They didn’t need a siren to tell them what was going on.

Or did they?

I said “most of them.” Lino’s brother-in-law, Roberto, for some reason, seems to have been born government-tropic, leaning instinctively toward what officials say and not what his eyes transmitted to his very own brain.  This was unfortunate, because Roberto lived on the ground floor below Lino’s apartment.

Lino remembers that on that fateful November 4 there had been heavy weather all day (wind, higher-than-usual tide, all the usual markers).  He knew when the tide was supposed to turn, therefore he noticed immediately that it had not, in fact, turned.  Which meant that six hours later, when it was supposed to rise again, it was going to begin rising from a much higher level than usual.

While he was evaluating all this, he looked up at the cable (phone? electricity?) strung high up across his street.  He saw a rat running along it.

That’s when he knew it was time to start preparing for serious water.

So he went to his brother-in-law and said, “Hey Roberto, we’re in for really high water — we’ve skipped a tide turn and the water’s not going down.  I’ll help you get your furniture upstairs.”

To which Roberto replied, “No no, nothing’s going to happen.  The city (I don’t know what office that would have been back then) says that blah blah we’re going to be okay blah blah.”

To which Lino said, “Listen, it’s not looking good AT ALL.  I will help you carry your things upstairs!  Let’s get on it!”

To which Robert replied, “No no, blah blah they said nothing’s going to happen blah blah.”

To which Lino replied, “Suit yourself.”

And so, two days later, Roberto had to throw out virtually all of his furniture, which was so full of lagoon water it would never be usable again.

I wasn’t there, but I knew him years after this event, and he was still not the type to say, “Boy, did I ever screw up.  Why didn’t I listen to you?”  He was the type, of which there is now an over-supply, who would have blamed the city for having erred in its prediction.

It strikes me that people nowadays have come to use the Tide Center as a crutch.  By which I don’t mean everybody should take a course in meteorology, or that the Tide Center is incompetent, because it isn’t.

What I mean is that there are too many variables in the weather (such as the wind suddenly dropping) for the Tide Center to keep up with, minute by minute, to ensure that every single person in Venice is going to know, every single minute, what to do.

There was a life before the Tide Center, and when there was acqua alta most people  were well aware it was on the way.  When Lino was a boy, people didn’t even wear rubber boots. Who had money to spend on boots?  You went barefoot, as I occasionally have done.

Now there’s a Tide Center, and instead of helping people act more intelligently (its fundamental purpose), its mere existence seems to have given people an excuse to behave like quivering bewildered rabbits.

The Tide Center isn’t there to save you, people.  Only you can do that.

If the Tide Center is predicting high water, why do so many people put their garbage bags out on the street? Does that mean they don’t believe the forecast? Or do they just not care? If they don’t care, then I think that pretty much closes the discussion on how distressing acqua alta is.  This event was December 1, 2008, but nothing has changed except the varying heights of the water.

This is a man willing to brave the ferocity of the elements to get the serum through to Nome. Sorry, I mean to get the boots somewhere to people who are evidently stranded. Funny thing is, by the time he gets home and they get the boots on, the water will be gone.

These people are dangerously irresponsible. Don’t they know they’re supposed to be frantic with worry and indignation?



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The water missed the exit

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The acqua alta which was anticipated for this morning at 9:40 — and which was announced with the necessary and appropriate siren plus three tones at 6:15 — didn’t make it ashore.

That is to say, I imagine there was some H20 in the Piazza San Marco, but the maximum height the water reached was 103 cm above sea level, not the expected 130.

I felt I ought to report on this, to reassure anyone who might have thought I’d be shifting furniture at dawn, but even more to reassure people that weather forecasts here can be just as imprecise as anywhere.  If that’s reassuring.

Faithful reader Debi Connor asked for pictures, so here goes.  I know that this is not the scene she expected.  It’s not the scene I expected either, but it’s a lovely thing to behold.

The water at the edge of our street, at 9:50 AM.

And the street across the canal. All quiet on the high-water front, at least in our neighborhood.

There is another high-water alert on for the next peak tide, tonight near midnight.  Naturally we will be paying attention.

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Categories : Acqua Alta
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