Archive for Acqua Alta


Water? Oh, that again.

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We’re looking to get more of this on Wednesday.  Heigh-ho.

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.”

The international press took a small recess from its daily barrage of stories of bombing, war and death and swerved its attention to acqua alta.  Exciting stories about high water were hurriedly written by people whose brains were sending out sparks, like old Communist-era light switches.

As I sit here this evening, I can’t help noticing that 15 days have passed without a drop of water sneaking out of place.  But that’s not interesting, so nobody reports on that.  It’s more fun to treat each acqua alta as if it were the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse.

So here’s a bulletin: Another high water is forecast for Wednesday, which is more than likely because a large low-pressure system is bearing down on us, and a really strong scirocco will be blowing, and the moon will be full.  (There are also thunderstorms thrown in, no extra charge.) If I can know this two days in advance, so can all the people out there who keen and ululate when their stuff gets wet.

But what is really on my mind about acqua alta isn’t how normal it is, how there have always been acquas alta, ever since there was a lagoon.  I’m evaluating proportions.

The lagoon covers about 212 square miles.  The city of Venice covers about three square miles.  The lagoon has been here for 5,000 years.  The city of Venice for about 1,500, give or take.

The city and the lagoon were both designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1987, hence were considered worthy of the same attention and concern.  Not to mention all those blue ribbons awarded the lagoon by the RAMSAR Convention on Wetlands.

Yet when the tide rises, suddenly the lagoon doesn’t matter anymore.  Even people who think of themselves as lovers of nature and defenders of the environment seem to blank out on the fact that the lagoon is one of the most important wetlands in Europe; that it is one of the most important coastal ecosystems in the Mediterranean Basin, that it plays a crucial role in the life of aquatic birds all over Europe.  That high tide might be normal; that the lagoon might matter as much as Venice.  Nope.  You get a foot of water on the ground and suddenly it’s all about the city.  I think that’s wrong.

I really love acqua alta outside the city, where all the barene get to have a deep, luxurious soak for a few hours. It makes me feel good too.

I was thinking: What if we took an enormous batch of wilderness (say, Yellowstone National Park).  Then we decided to put a city there.  Why?  Well, just because we decided to.

Then the wilderness starts to be bothersome to the people in that city.  Therefore the wilderness has to be fixed so it won’t be so bothersome.  We’ve got to cut back on bears, and on wolves, and on antelope; let’s get those pesky (fill in the blank here) under control. There are too many (fill in here), so let’s send them away.  There is too much (fill in here) right where we want to (fill in here), so let’s fix that.  We need more space to park cars.  We need more electricity. And so on.  Day by day all that world that was doing fine before we got there becomes more and more of a problem.

I am not romanticizing the past, nor am I proposing that we all get in the car and drive back to Eden.  I know that the Venetians did plenty of jiggering with the lagoon in the olden days.  But they were actually on the lagoon’s side.  They understood it, they profited by it, they needed it.   Their main concern wasn’t having too much water, but too little — they diverted entire rivers, including the Po, to prevent the lagoon from silting up.  They liked the water.

Of course there were occasionally extreme acqua altas which caused extreme problems (such as ruining all the freshwater wells).  But no Venetian of the Great Days would have proposed anything like MOSE — inconceivably vast, and expensive, and demonstrably destructive to the lagoon, and utterly irreversible.  Anyone who damaged the lagoon, according to an old declaration, ought to be compared to someone who damaged the defensive walls of their city — an enemy of the state.

Conclusion: We’ve got a city where it really doesn’t belong, though we’re all really glad it’s here.  But the lagoon, not to put too fine a point on it, is just as valuable, and as irreplaceable, as the city.

So I want everybody to just get off the lagoon’s case.  I’m going to get the boots out, and then I’m going to bed.


Categories : Acqua Alta
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San Martino blows through

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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.




Categories : Acqua Alta, Water
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Reflections on water

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There seems to be something wrong with the date November 4.  And I’m not referring to the Unknown Soldier.  I’m referring to water.

On November 4, 1966, the famous acqua extra-alta flowed over Venice. It was also the day on which the catastrophic flood of the Arno struck Florence.  (Trivia alert: A similar flood hit Florence on November 4, 1333.)

And now November 4, 2011 has entered the annals of suffering in Genova, flooded by at least two of their rivers which were overwhelmed by torrential rains.

I mention this for several reasons, and not primarily to make you wonder what it is about November 4 that seems to make the firmament go feral.

One reason I mention it is because Venice usually gets the headlines, whether there is a real problem or not.  The foreign press loves to dramatize us splashing around in the Piazza San Marco, but I’m not sure that it has drawn appropriate attention to the cataclysm which has driven Genova to its knees, so I am making a point of telling you here.

Another reason I bring it up is to repeat one of my essential points about water in Venice compared to water in other places, which is that you can’t compare them.

So I will summarize it here and — I hope — won’t drone on about it any more this year.

Acqua alta is not “flooding.”  Flooding is what happened in Florence, and in Genova, and other places I won’t list, and it often involves destruction and death.

We get wet.  They get killed.  On November 4 in Genova, there were at least seven victims. One woman was crushed between two cars being swept away down what used to be a street.  Another woman and her two small children were drowned when the crest of the flood caught them in the entryway of their apartment building before they could make it to the staircase.  And so on.

These are utterly tragic stories which are — thank God — impossible to replicate with acqua alta.

Some "water on the ground" in the Piazza San Marco. The tide is coming in, as you can tell by the fact that the pavement to the left is dry. And then it will be going out again. It's hard to think of calling this "flooding."

Therefore I trust that any drama you may encounter in the upcoming months in the press, on TV, on tourists’ blogs, concerning water in Venice will not impress you.  In fact, I hope you won’t even notice it.

To review: Acqua alta is tide.  It comes in, it goes out.  It does not destroy bridges, rip up trees, or make floating trucks smash into buildings. Or humans.

So please spare a thought for the people in Genova (and elsewhere) who are suffering hideously from this avalanche of water.  Do not expend any thought whatever on whether people in Venice have to put their boots on for two hours.

Though if you think we ought to start a group to advocate the abolition of November 4 from the calendar, I’ll be ready to sign up.

Genova, November 4, 2011.


Genova, beginning to dig out.


Venice, November 30, 2009. Not the same thing.

Categories : Acqua Alta, Flooding
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Remember acqua alta? No?

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Fall is discernible here not only by the drifting leaves and deflating temperatures but by the enlivening of the tides.  Sounds like some folkloristic event, like bringing the cows down from the alpine pastures or going out to slay the tuna.

The enlivening of the tides consists of somewhat higher high tides (sometimes), and wind which at the moment is going every which way, trying to find the path that will give it the most potential for annoying people and also for enlivening the tide.  Yes, I anthropomorphize the wind and sometimes the water and also the fog and clouds and even a few people.

Which is my way of saying that at some point — maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of the winter, if not of your life — there could be high water.  We are approaching the entrance to the season of the infamous acqua alta — Flooding!! — that gets people not from here so wild-eyed and frantic.  Venice is sinking!  Man the lifeboats!  Belay the cabinboy!

Today we have a comfortably high tide. When I see water this high what I really want is not a pair of tall rubber boots but my own boat, because rowing on high water is a wonderful sensation. You feel lighter and somehow more buoyant. Feeling lighter is always a treat.

So with the clear anticipation of wailing articles to accompany the wailing warning sirens, and to somehow reposition everybody’s mind concerning this phenomenon — seeing that whenever it happens, the reports abroad make it sound as if we live our lives to the sound of water lapping at the bookcases — I’d like to share some information.

I have consulted the Tide Center’s data for acqua alta in 2011.  The last one was on February 16. And then, after six hours, it went away.

Therefore we have now lived 251 consecutive days without acqua alta.  Two-thirds of an entire year. I scarcely remember what the siren sounds like.

I just thought I’d mention this, in case anyone might happen to read an article in the next few months — or more likely, many articles — giving the impression that living in Venice means that we spend most of our time yelling “Women and children first!”

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Categories : Acqua Alta
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