The Many Floods of Venice

“Venice is terrible,” a bartender told me one night just a few steps from the city’s famed St. Mark’s Square. It was a statement so loaded and hyperbolic, not to mention patently wrong, as evidenced by the thousands of tourists that trample through the Italian water city all day, every day, rain or shine. But his job isn’t to be a tourist. His job is to keep an eye on the water level and put out the barriers to prevent water from coming into the bar, all while his manager yells at him to watch the wood paneling on the floor and to be careful not a drop makes it past the front door.

Such a dichotomy—people who love and hate Venice all in the same few square feet—is strangely representative of the city of canals. There’s almost no place else in the world as steady and lucrative in the tourism industry as Venice, which makes it hard for hotel bell hops or the famous gondoliers to want to leave. On average, Venice generates $2 billion in tourist revenue, about as much as all of Scotland. A feature in National Geographic Magazine described the challenge of maintaining a city constantly flooded with tourists.

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Photograph by Spencer Millsap

Then there are the other floods. Last year, parts of Venice filled with rushing water more than three dozen times, and not just a few drops. “The water came up to here,” a street worker said holding his hand at the middle of his thigh. He was shuffling around the stilted platforms that effectively serve as raised sidewalks when the water floods into the main square. The frequency depends on the weather, but three different people told us with an eye roll or sometimes a shrug that it’s been happening more and more.

To keep the water at bay, Venice started construction on a tide barrier system ten years ago. A group of 78 mobile flood barriers at the entrance to the Venice lagoon (the city doesn’t sit next to actual ocean) rise and collapse with the tides, keeping the surging water away from the Venetian canals. It’s appropriately titled “the Moses Project,” after the biblical episode when Moses made the Red Sea bend upward—against both physics and logic—to allow Jewish slaves to escape Egypt. After $7 billion already spent, the project only recently passed its first tests. It’s scheduled to be completed by 2015.

Will it be enough? Anyone who remembers Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans knows that water is a powerful force, unsympathetic to the desires of tourists on vacation. It’s not hard to imagine what would happen if the system malfunctioned in a time of need, even once. Venice’s municipal leaders famously hate discussing the floods, which fragment the romantic image of the city that they want to project on brochures and in tour books.

The best answer might lie in another exodus, the number of people not coming to Venice, but leaving. About 30 years ago, Venice’s population was 120,000, about the same size as Boulder, Colorado. Today the number is about half, and continuing to sink as the tides rise and tourists flood. Last year, in comparison to the island’s pint-sized population, the number of visitors who came to Venice was 21 million.