On November 4, 1966, the city of Venice woke up in the middle of its biggest nightmare. The largest flood in its history reached a level of 194 cm above median sea level and covered almost the entire city. The tide remained for 22 hours above 110 cm and for about 40 hours over 50 cm. It created a lot of damage in the historical center and on the lagoon islands. To remember the 50th anniversary of this tragic event, I have reconstructed the story of this day based amongst other things on an article by Giulio Obici, journalist at Paese Sera, and the notes from Pellestrina police commander Giovanni Cester.
(picture in banner: © Comune di Venezia Archivio della Comunicazione – photographer AFI)
DID YOU KNOW? The median level of the sea in Venice is not the same as in the rest of Italy. Venice uses the ‘tide-level-zero’ at the Punta della Salute (measured in 1897), where a monitoring station is located. In the rest of Italy, the median sea level refers to the level in Genoa, which is about 23 cm higher.
Venice and the northern part of Italy have been suffering from a rainstorm and a sirocco wind (a dry wind from the south) for several days. The Piave, Brenta and Sile rivers can no longer swallow the excessive water and are now swelling the Venetian lagoon. The exceptional combination of tidal waves, the full moon, a drop in the barometric pressure and strong winds is the forerunner of the upcoming, yet unpredicted disaster.
At 10 pm, a high tide floods the city of Venice. Usually, at a ‘normal’ acqua alta, the water has enough time to flow back out of the lagoon before the next flood arrives.
November 4, early morning
Following the astronomical rules, the water should have started to retreat at 5 am. However, due to the extreme flood and the continuous rain, the lagoon can no longer swallow the excess of water. The water level increases, as does the intensity of the southerly wind. This is a first omen for the double high tide.
Electricity, phones and gas go down in Venice. The residents wait and pray that the second tidal outflow in the evening will bring consolation. In Pellestrina, the lower parts of the island start to be flooded.
November 4, late morning
The situation on the lagoon islands gets worse. A strong wind blows, rain keeps falling and waves of 20 metres high fall on the coasts and break the barriers. Inhabitants call for help from the mainland and flee the islands.
The dams in Portosecco and San Pietro break. Muddy water flows through a hole of 200 metres in the wall at Brasiola and creates channels on the island. Officers get ready to evacuate the complete island before it disappears in the lagoon.
November 4, early afternoon
The phone lines break down in Pellestrina, which is now isolated and completely on its own. The water of the lagoon covers the whole island and the situation is terrifying. Civilian volunteers inspect the area by boat. Gardens and roads can no longer be seen. The water touches the ceiling of the first floor of houses and people wait for rescue on the rooftops. It is hell.
The other lagoon islands face the same terror. The crops and the lifestock are washed away from the vineyards and fields of Cavallino, which are completely destroyed. Sant’Erasmo disappears under waves of 4 metres and furniture floats outside the houses. Boats drift in Burano, and hundreds of bathing booths are destroyed by the power of the water in Lido.
In the historic center of Venice, the water level on the Piazza San Marco reaches 120 cm and up to 150 cm in the Palazzo Ducale. The water in the streets is now polluted with oil leaking from boilers and with other garbage. It starts to smell.
November 4, late afternoon
The rescue boats from Venice arrive in Pellestrina around 4 pm. More than 4,000 inhabitants are evacuated, while the others seek refuge in houses with multiple floors.
It gets dark in Venice while the residents wait for the second and final outflow of the day. They pray that this one will withdraw the water from the city.
November 4, early evening
Finally, there is a first positive sign at 17.50. The sirocco wind from the south changes direction and turns to the west. It still blows fiercely, but the water level in the lagoon gets back within its limits. Pellestrina is safe.
The second tide of the day reaches the historical center of Venice. At 6 pm, the reference point at Punta della Salute measures 194 cm, the highest level of the acqua granda.
November 4, evening
Pellestrina is almost deserted. The families have been assembled in barracks at Lido or found shelter with friends and family. 700 people were admitted to the Hospital al Mare.
Around 9 pm, the water withdraws with strong power from the historical center of Venice. The first signs of the incredible damage become visible: a blackish streak on the walls of houses from the fuel, chairs, mattresses and garbage everywhere, pigeons and dead rats in every corner, desolation in the ground floor houses.
A parade of little flames starts to fill the streets in Venice. The inhabitants inspect the destruction, while at the same time thanking God that the worst part of the nightmare is over.
At dawn, the city reveals its wounds after the catastrophe. The acqua granda demolished more than 75% of the shops, flooded all the houses on the ground floor, damaged almost all workshops, deteriorated an enormous amount of books in libraries, destroyed goods in warehouses, furniture in homes and a lot of artworks.
The walls protecting the islands in the Venetian lagoon collapsed at approx. 10 points over a total length of 680 metres, while others are damaged or cracked.
Another major drawback is the suspension of the food supply. The water and the lack of electricity made ovens and refrigerators unusable and destroyed all the food kept on the ground floors of the houses. The human crisis is not over yet.
It takes more than a week to solve the problems of lighting and garbage. 450 people are employed for garbage collection, while teams of specialists use solvents to dissolve the oil slicks in the canals and to clean the black patina on the buildings and monuments.
On December 2, one month after the flood, the UNESCO launched an appeal for international solidarity to help Venice with the repair of the damages and the restoration of its cultural heritage. As a result, several international committees were created under the umbrella of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Many still exist to preserve the history of Venice. Since 1966, they have restored more than 100 monuments and 1,000 works of art, from the San Marco basilica and Palazzo Ducale to smaller churches and palazzos. You can read more on this in my post on the financing of cultural heritage.
To safeguard Venice from the flooding at high tide, the Mose project (referring to the biblical person who split the sea) was launched in 2003. The goal of the project is to protect the islands in the Venetian lagoon from the water, while maintaining and restoring the delicate ecological equilibrium. The project was originally due to be finalized in 2011. However, legislative and financial problems and scandals have led to a huge delay. The project is now expected to be finished in 2018. Follow this link to read my post on the love and hate relationship of Venice with water, which includes a chapter on the Mose project.
The 50th anniversary of the acqua granda is a major topic in Venice. The City of Venice has appointed a task force to organize several events to commemorate the flood of 1966. One beautiful example is the opera ‘Aquagranda’ at Teatro La Fenice, which is composed by Filippo Perocco. The inauguration will be played on November 4, exactly 50 years after the tragedy. It tells the story of two fishermen on the Pellestrina island. If you are interested, you can try to get a last-minute ticket or to find a copy of the book ‘Acqua Granda, il romanzo dell’alluvione’ by Roberto Bianchin, which was used as inspiration of the opera.
DID YOU KNOW? The difference between acqua granda and aqua granda in my post is not a mistake. I decided to use the Italian word ‘acqua’, while the opera of La Fenice refers to the Latin word ‘aqua’.
The Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana organizes the exhibition ‘Venezia 1966- 2016’, with stories and pictures from the archives of the city of Venice. It will not only focus on the acqua granda of 1966 but also on the restoration of the cultural heritage. You can visit the exhibition in the Sale Monumentali from October 28 until November 27. Before you visit, you might also want to read my post on the historical libraries in Venice which gives you more information about this beautiful Marciana library.
Next time you’re visiting Venice, don’t forget to look at the signs on the walls that indicate the maximum level of 194 cm. You will appreciate the beauty of the city even more.
Take care of Venice!
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