Venice Copes With Exceptional Tides

VENICE, Italy (AP) -- Venetians coped with another exceptional tide Sunday in a season that is setting records while other parts of Italy wrestled with a cornucopia of weather woes, from rain-swollen rivers to high winds to an out-of-season avalanche.

Stores and museums in Venice were mostly closed in the hardest-hit area around St. Mark's Square, but tourists donning high rubber boots or even hip waders still came to witness and photograph the spectacle.

Most were disappointed when officials closed down the historic square as winds ripple across the rising waters. The doors of the famed St. Mark's Basilica were securely shut to the public, while officials took precautions --- stacking sandbags in canal-side windows --- to prevent water from entering the crypt again.

Venice's Tide Office said the peak tide of 1.5 meters (nearly 5 feet) hit just after 1 p.m., as a weather front off the coast blocked southerly winds from the Adriatic Sea from pushing the tide to the predicted level of 1.6 meters (5 feet, 2 inches).

Still it marked the third time since Tuesday night's 1.87-meter flood ---the worst in 53 years --- that water levels in Venice had topped 1.5 meters. Since records began in 1872, that level had never been reached even twice in one year, let alone three times in one week.

Many store owners in the swanky area around St. Mark's completely emptied their shops, while others raised wares as high as possible and counted on automatic pumping systems to keep the water at bay. In at least one luxury boutique, employees used water vacuums and big squeegee mops to keep the brackish lagoon waters from advancing.

Venice's mayor has put the flooding damage at hundreds of millions of euros and Italian officials have declared a state of emergency for the area. They say Venice is both sinking into the mud and facing rising sea levels due to climate change.

But tourists keep arriving, some tying plastic garbage bags high up on their legs when their knee-high boots were too short.

Luca D'Acunto and his girlfriend Giovanna Maglietta surveyed the rising water from a bridge, wondering how to make their way to their nearby hotel in their colorful yet inadequate rubber boots.

"We made the reservation this week before the floods and had paid already, so we came," said D'Acunto, a 28-year-old from Naples. "Instead of a romantic trip, we'll have an adventurous one."

Most museums were closed as a precaution, but the Correr Museum, which overlooks St. Mark's Square and explores the art and history of Venice, remained open. Tourists enjoyed a Venetian Spritz --- a colorful aperitif with an Italian bitter and Prosecco --- as the waters rose.

Officials said 280 civil protection volunteers from throughout the region were deployed to assist as needed. Young Venetian volunteers in rubber boots have also showed up at key sites, including the city's Music Conservatory, to help save precious manuscripts from the invading salt water.

The flooding has raised renewed debates about the city's Moses flood defense project, a corruption-riddled underwater barrier system that is still not operational after more than 16 years of construction and at least 5 billion euros of public funding. It was supposed to be working by 2011.

Floods were also hitting other parts of Italy on Sunday.

In Pisa, workers sandbagged the road along the rising Arno River, which was also surging through the heart of Florence, reaching a level near the Uffizi Galleries that was described as the highest in some 20 years. In 24 hours, 6.26 centimeters (2.5 inches) of rain had fallen in Florence, which was whipped by winds as high as 76 kilometers per hour (42 mph).

A popular Florence tourist attraction, the Boboli Gardens, was closed as a precaution while workers checked to see if the high winds might have weakened trees. Near another Tuscan town, Cecina, 500 people were evacuated when a local river swelled to the top of its banks.

In Italy's mountainous Alto Adige, or South Tyrol region, a mid-autumn snowstorm triggered power outages and blocked roads in several Alpine valleys. The mayor of Val Martello, Georg Altstaetter, told state TV that an avalanche had damaged two houses but caused no injuries. Other homes were evacuated in the town as a precaution, he said.

A windstorm overnight in the Rome area toppled scores of trees, with two falling on cars, severely injuring a motorist, authorities said.

(KR)