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Venetians Learn to Take High Tide in Stride

With the return of bad weather conditions and rains, the constant flooding of Venice has resumed disrupting the lives of Venetians and tourists. People can be seen wearing rubber boots or simply barefoot to cross the rivers and ponds that form daily when the tides rise.

The sound of the water washing up onto the streets is only too common in this city of canals. It's that time of the year again. November is one of the months street flooding and high tides are most common.

The year 2004 has not been bad so far. The highest tide brought with it a maximum water level of 137 centimeters. That happened just two weeks ago and experts say that is considered an emergency because it means 80 percent of the city is under water.

Residents of Venice know how to cope with the problem. They have always lived with it and before them their parents and grandparents. They know no different and say its part of their way of life.

"If we forecast that a tide will exceed 110 centimeters the sound of the sirens is set off," says Paolo Canestrelli, who heads the centre for high tides forecasting at the Venice city council. "Mr. Canestrelli adds this is done 3 hours ahead of the tide so that Venetians are aware that the water is expected to exceed the limit under which the city does not suffer serious problems but above which the inconveniences begin."

Mr. Canestrelli says it's not always easy to predict the tides well in advance. Sometimes the experts are able to know two or three days before the high tide occurs but if it is a rapidly developing event, they may only have 7 hours to prepare for it.

He says the first thing to be done, in good time, is to warn municipal workers to place the raised walkways along already determined routes so that people can get around without getting their feet wet.

But Venetians take no risks anymore. When the sirens sound, they know they cannot leave their homes without their rubber boots.

Of course I'm well equipped, says a 80-year-old man. I'm Venetian. The high water, he adds, has existed here for centuries so if you have a pair of boots, you know what you must do.

He thinks there is little man can do to resolve the water problem. You cannot combat nature. He does not believe an approved project to build large, movable floodgates at the entrances of the Venice lagoon will help.

The project designed to control the flow of water when the tides rise was given the go-ahead after over 30 years of debate. Inaugurated in May 2003, it is expected to cost over $3 billion and will not be completed before 2011.

Environmental groups are still battling the decision to build the gates saying these will upset the natural balance of the lagoon. Most residents are more concerned with their daily lives.

Monica owns a tobacconist in front of the ferry boat stop at San Zaccaria where many people get off to go to Saint Mark's Square, which is constantly flooded these days. In front of her tobacconist shop there is a pool of water which flows into the building.

"This situation is very normal," she said. "It happens every year depending on the high water."

She says when it reaches a certain level, it comes into the shop and we must raise all the shelves. We're used to it and she adds they often face damage because the water rots the base of the shop.

Monica says every day she makes sure she knows what level the water is expected to reach. The Venetian authorities have thought up new ways of informing the population.

Mr. Canestrelli says they now have valid instruments like the sending of SMS to mobile phones. Since the messages were introduced two years ago, he says, they have been an excellent way of informing a large number of people quickly about the levels of the tide.

The sirens are set off when the water reaches 110 centimeter, 140 centimeters and finally at 160 centimeters above sea level which means the entire city is flooded. Mr. Canestrelli says in those conditions the raised platforms are insufficient, regular boots are useless and boats can no longer get under the bridges. Fortunately, he says, the last time the 160 mark was reached was in 1979.

Business suffers when the water is high. Not only for those who have shops which get constantly flooded. Giuseppe has been a gondolier in Venice for as long as he can remember. He is not happy when the water rises.

He says tourists don't come because we cannot get under the bridges. We need to get to the home of Marco Polo but we can't get through. Gondoliers, he adds, live with the weather conditions, not only the high water, but the rain as well.

Some tourists are exactly the way Giuseppe describes them. They are bothered by the water. Like Karen who is visiting from Philadelphia. She finds it a terrible inconvenience.

"Yeah, because you have to wait in line now to walk along all these risers unless you have big plastic boots on and none of us have them," she said.

Others take in their stride.

"I guess I have no choice," said a tourist. "It's nature, Mother Nature, so you have to cope with that. That's the time we decided to visit Venice and that's what happened."

Perhaps Monica, the tobacconist owner, sums up best how most tourists really react when they find they chose to visit Venice at the wrong time of the year.

Monica says they have great fun. They cannot wait to walk in the water. Most just take their shoes and socks off and away they go.