After Venice Floods, Volunteers Wade In To Help Salvage What They Can


Volunteers set up a footbridge across Venice's flooded Riva degli Schiavoni embankment on Nov. 13.
Marco Bertorello / AFP via Getty Images

Volunteers set up a footbridge across Venice's flooded Riva degli Schiavoni embankment on Nov. 13.

The Italian city of Venice is still reeling from a week of three exceptional tides whose floodwaters have caused massive damage to the city's cultural legacy and to residences and businesses.

The disaster has gripped Italy and inspired a wave of volunteers to salvage what they can.

There is a bookshop in Campiello del Tintor square named Libreria Acqua Alta, which means High Water Bookstore. Following Sunday's exceptional high tide, the square as well as the store's pavement were under several inches of water.

This eccentric bookshop is a Venice landmark. Aware of the constant danger of floods, the owners always displayed books inside bathtubs, plastic bins and even a full-size gondola. But last Tuesday, the books were not high enough for the worst high tide in more than 50 years — reaching 6 feet, 1 inch.

The shop's fire escape opens onto a canal — where a gondola now floats above the height of the bookstore's pavement. Wading inside her store with hip-high rubber boots, co-owner Diana Zanda has been assessing the damage and trying to save whatever she can.

"Nobody was ready for that. But at the end of the situation, well, I think we are all feeling pretty lucky because a lot of young people came here in Venice to take care of us and help us. They helped them a lot," she says.

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That volunteer spirit has taken over much of the city. Young people have helped older residents dispose of heavy appliances, such as now-useless washing machines and refrigerators.

The Italian Culture Ministry has sent experts to assess damage in the flooded crypt of St. Mark's Basilica, where mosaic pavements and frescoes were submerged by saltwater. But in many of the city's less-known cultural institutes, volunteers are doing the salvage work.

The Querini Stampalia Foundation is located in an 18th century Venetian palazzo. An elegant room with Murano glass chandeliers is now a rescue center for precious books from the foundation's seriously damaged library.

Anna Dumont, an American Ph.D. student doing research on textiles from the 19th and 20th centuries, is one of several volunteers there.

"So right now we're taking books that are wet with saltwater and we are, page by page, putting paper towels in between the pages to soak up the water and hopefully save the books," she says.

Working at the next table is Venetian Gianmarco Bondi.

"I'm actually a criminal lawyer. I should be at work right now. But, you know, I have a debt towards this place, given I came here to study for a long time," Bondi says. "I felt like I had to be back somehow."

A major engineering project was supposed to place moveable floodgates to hold back the tides from flooding Venice, but it is still unfinished after 16 years and more than $5 billion in public funds. The project is known by an Italian acronym that translates to "Moses."

Bondi echoes widespread accusations that foul play and incompetence by officials have caused the delays.

"It's time for people to actually invest in the city and save what's left and finish this Moses project, hopefully, and eventually work on what else is needed to save the most beautiful city we have," he says.

Venice is used to high water. A century ago, tides occurred seven times a year. But today, it's closer to 100 with the rising sea level. Moses' engineers have said they aim to complete the project by the end of 2021.

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