Wading in Venice: City Submerged by Flood Waters

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: Parts of Venice, Italy, including the famous San Marco Square were flooded this week. A high tide forced tourists to wade through the city in knee-high waters. Water levels are about 55 inches above normal. Makeshift foot bridges were created to allow people to walk above the floodwaters. Rafael Bras is Provost at Georgia Tech. He's also an expert on flooding in Venice and the efforts to protect the city, which we're going to talk about. But first, Rafael, it seems to me this is a story that we hear quite often, so let's go to you for a reality check. Is Venice flooding happening more frequently?

Rafael Bras: The number of floods over the last few decades, certainly over the last hundred years, have been documented to be increasing in frequency. Floods over 110 centimeters, or on the order of 50 inches, for example, in the decade of the 1950s would have occurred around 10 to 15 times, are now occurring about 50 to 55 times a year.

Mullins: And does that water recede eventually?

Bras: Yes, the water recedes eventually. These events normally can last six hours. They can last longer, like the one yesterday, the last few days, have been 14 hours.

Mullins: Why is this happening more frequently?

Bras: I think there are two main explanations of why this happens. Early on the region, the lagoon of Venice, was sinking very quickly, and that was largely due to the pumping of water for industrial uses around the lagoon. Controls were put in place back in 1970s. The rate of sinking has reduced considerably, so the one big threat that still continues elevated is sea level rise, and that will, by all accounts, will continue and is certainly occurring in the Adriatic.

Mullins: Well this is something, obviously, that's been on our minds here in the US as well, sea level rise, through all this week and even prior to that. What, then, are you doing in the Venice area to try and hold back the sea?

Bras: The whole idea is to separate the sea from the lagoon, or the body, the smaller body of water you want to protect, in times of high tides. So the idea is to close off the inlets into the lagoon of Venice, and there are three inlets into the lagoon of Venice, during periods of high tide or high flood conditions.

Mullins: So that's a hugely ambitious project. Are you concerned that at the rate of the sea level rise and the flooding that you say is happening more frequently in Venice, that there may be significant destruction before the project is even completed?

Bras: The project actually probably will not be completed until 2016, and the reason for that is not engineering or problems with engineering, it's going very, very well. It has to do with appropriate financing and the flow of resources to keep the pace of construction going. As you know, all around the world, finances are a real issue these days.

Mullins: You mean is it going to cost more than the $8 billion that had been estimated?

Bras: No, it's not.

Mullins: It's still hard to get the $8 billion.

Bras: It's just getting the financing flowing as originally intended.

Mullins: Let me ask you this. Is it reasonable to think or overly optimistic to think and hope that Venice will exist as the beautiful historic city that it is one hundred years from now?

Bras: I believe so, with this project, it will. But needless to say the future, not only of Venice but of every coastal region in the world, is something that goes beyond the original Venice and something that we as citizens of the world have to worry about.

Mullins: Yeah, even now to the coasts of New Jersey and New York.

Bras: Absolutely.

Mullins: Thank you. Rafael Bras, provost at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Nice to speak with you.

Bras: Thank you very much.