VENICE, Italy — The worst flooding in Venice in more than 50 years prompted calls Wednesday to better protect the historic city from rising sea levels as officials calculated hundreds of millions of euros in damage.
The water reached 1.87 meters (6.14 feet) above sea level Tuesday, the second-highest level ever recorded in the city and just 7 centimeters (2½ inches) lower than the historic 1966 flood. Another wave of exceptionally high water followed Wednesday.
“Venice is on its knees,’’ Mayor Luigi Brugnaro said on Twitter. “St. Mark’s Basilica has sustained serious damage, like the entire city and its islands.”
One death was blamed on the flooding, on the barrier island of Pellestrina. A man in his 70s was apparently electrocuted when he tried to start a pump in his dwelling, said Danny Carrella, an official on the island of 3,500 inhabitants.
In Venice, the crypt beneath St. Mark’s Basilica was inundated for only the second time in its history. Damage was also reported at the Ca’ Pesaro modern art gallery, where a short circuit set off a fire, and at La Fenice theater, where authorities turned off electricity as a precaution after the control room was flooded.
Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, said that no damage had been reported to Venice’s significant art collections, in museums throughout the city. Many sites remained closed to tourists, and La Fenice canceled concerts Wednesday and Thursday evening.
Tourists floated suitcases through St. Mark’s Square, where officials removed walkways to prevent them from floating away. The water was so high that nothing less than thigh-high boots afforded protection. Water poured through wooden boards that shop and hotel owners have placed in front of doors during previous floods to hold back water. Tourists on the ground floor of hotels were forced to move to upper floors overnight. One man was filmed swimming bare-chested in St. Mark’s Square at what appeared to be the height of the flood.
“I have often seen St. Mark’s Square covered with water,’’ Venice’s patriarch, Monsignor Francesco Moraglia, told reporters. “Yesterday there were waves that seemed to be the seashore.”
Brugnaro said damage would reach hundreds of millions of euros, and he called on Rome to declare a state of emergency.
“We are not just talking about calculating the damages, but of the very future of the city’’ Brugnaro told reporters. “Because the population drain also is a result of this.”
He described “untold damages, to houses, shops, activities not to mention monuments and works of art. We risked our lives as well.”
The flooding was caused by southerly winds that pushed a high tide, exacerbated a full moon, into the historic city. At the same time, rising sea levels because of climate change coupled with the city’s well-documented sinking make the city built amid a system of canals even more vulnerable. Sea level in Venice is 10 centimeters (4 inches) higher than it was 50 years ago, according to the city’s tide office.
Damage included five ferries that serve as water buses, a critical means of transportation. Photos on social media also showed taxi boats and gondolas grounded on walkways flanking canals.
Brugnaro blamed climate change for the “dramatic situation” and called for a speedy completion of a long-delayed project to construct offshore barriers.
Called “Moses,” the moveable undersea barriers are meant to limit flooding. But the project, which has been opposed by environmentalists concerned about damaging the delicate lagoon eco-system, has been delayed by cost overruns and corruption scandals, with no launch date in site.
Luca Zaia, governor of the Veneto region, told SkyTG24 that the barriers were almost complete, but it wasn’t clear if they would work against such flooding.
“Despite 5 billion euros under water, St. Mark’s Square certainly wouldn’t be secure,’’ Zaia said, referring to one of Venice’s lowest points, which floods when there is an inundation of 80 centimeters (31.5 inches).
Zaia also expressed concern for snowfalls in the mountains above Venice, where up to 120 centimeters (47 inches) was expected.
Across the Adriatic Sea, heavy storm and sweeping winds also collapsed caused floods in towns in Croatia and Slovenia.
In the Croatian town of Split, authorities on Wednesday said that the flooding submerged the basement area of the Roman-era Diocletian’s Palace where emergency crews battled to pump out the water.
Slovenia’s coastal towns of Piran, Izola and Koper reported that sea levels reached the second highest point in the last 50 years.