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

Nov 18, 2019
Originally published on November 18, 2019 7:17 pm

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.

The books at Venice's Acqua Alta (High Water) bookstore have always been displayed inside bathtubs, plastic bins and even a full-size gondola.
Sylvia Poggioli / NPR

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.

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.

At Venice's Querini Stampalia Foundation, volunteers including American student Anna Dumont (right) work to save books damaged in flooding. "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.
Sylvia Poggioli/NPR

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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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A disaster is unfolding in Venice. The centuries-old city built atop small islands and laced with canals is flooded. Three record-high tides coming in short order have submerged St. Mark's Square and damaged churches, homes and businesses. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports now Italy is rallying to save Venice, and volunteers are arriving to help.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Campiello del Tintor full of water as we approach the bookstore Acqua Alta, which is appropriately named. It means high water. This eccentric bookstore is a Venice landmark. Because of the constant danger of floods, its books have always been displayed inside bathtubs, plastic bins and even a full-sized gondola. But last Tuesday, the books were not high enough for the worst 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 store's pavement, which is still under several inches of water. Co-owner Diana Zanda has been assessing the damage and trying to salvage what she can.

DIANA ZANDA: Nobody was ready for that. But at the end of the situation, I think we're all feeling pretty lucky because a lot of young people came here in Venice, took care of us and help us. They helped them a lot.

POGGIOLI: 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, it's volunteers who 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 is an American Ph.D. student doing research here on 19th and 20th century textiles. Today she's one of several volunteers.

ANNA DUMONT: 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.

POGGIOLI: Working at the next table is Venetian Gianmarco Bondi.

GIANMARCO BONDI: I'm actually a criminal lawyer. I should be at work right now, but I have a debt towards this place. Given I came here to study for a long time, I felt like I had to give back.

POGGIOLI: Given his profession, I asked Bondi about Moses, the huge engineering project of moveable floodgates to hold back the tides from flooding Venice. It's still unfinished after 16 years and $5.5 billion in public funds. Bondi echoes public opinion that believes that incompetence, foul play and/or criminal activity are behind the delays.

BONDI: Now it's time for people to actually invest in the city and save what's left and finish this Moses project, hopefully. And eventually, we'll collect what else is needed to save the most beautiful city we have.

POGGIOLI: Venice is used to high water. A century ago, tides occurred seven times a year. But today it's closer to 100, with sea levels rising. The latest word from the Moses engineers - they hope the project can be completed by the end of 2021.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Venice. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.