ROME–In 1984, long before global warming and rising sea levels were common notions, Venice already was sinking. The future was so dire for the lagoon city that the local council voted to spend whatever it would take to study and then build a high-tech floodgate system to combat the rising Adriatic Sea.
It took nearly 20 years and a starting budget of $1.8 billion to come up with the so-called “Moses” plan. The project is an acronym for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico or Experimental Electromechanical Module, and plays on the name of the biblical figure who parted the Red Sea.
Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s then prime minister, inaugurated the project in 2003 with the promise it would be completed by 2011, which was pushed back to 2014, which was pushed back to 2016, and, at last check, to 2021. Had the project been completed in time, Moses’ 78 massive mechanical gates might have limited this week’s devastating floods, which inundated 85 percent of the city with a tidal surge that topped six feet, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage and putting ancient treasures at risk. Moses likely would not have completely kept out the surge, experts say, but it would have certainly done more than the alternative, which was to do nothing but tally the damage and wait for the next high tide.
In the 16 years since the Moses plan was put in place, the budget to finish the project has exploded to more than $7 billion and continues to bleed money at a dizzying rate. Some of the money has gone to bad management or corrupt contractors who have swindled the builders. In July, workers discovered that the 156 hinges—each weighing 36 tons—on the underwater barriers that were supposed to last a century are nearly rusted shut after just a decade under water. The job was awarded to a company called Gruppo Mantovani, which won the $275 million contract without there being a formal bid. La Stampa newspaper reports that the company used sub-par steel and is being investigated. Replacing the hinges will take a further 10 years and cost another $34 million, according to the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, which is in charge of the project.
More troubling still is that a lot of the money meant to finish the project has been siphoned away by rampant corruption. Several special funds fed by art lovers and patrons of the city that were meant to defray costs have disappeared into thin air. In 2014 after an investigation, Venice’s mayor Giorgio Orsoni resigned and 35 people tied to the project were arrested for bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering. The investigation traced some $27 million that had disappeared from the Moses coffers to kickbacks from contractors and foreign bank accounts allegedly used to line the pockets of about 100 people.
Orsoni was accused of taking illicit funds in exchange for awarding lucrative contracts to sub-par companies. In some cases, the contracts were never fulfilled or were allocated for studies or other non-construction-related projects that were never delivered. Investigators said Orsoni used the money to run a successful re-election campaign and buy votes. Charges against him were eventually dropped after the statute of limitations ran out.
Giancarlo Galan, a former president of the Veneto region, was also placed under investigation, accused of taking $230,000 in kickbacks to speed up approval of contracts without going through the rigorous checks the Consorzio required. The hinge fiasco was approved under his watch. Galan spent a few months in prison after being convicted of the crimes, and is currently on house arrest.
Even Giovanni Mazzacurati, the head of the Consorzio, was arrested, accused of creating a slush fund with money meant to finish the floodgate, according to Carlo Nordio, the prosecutor who helped uncover the scam. Mazzacurati was convicted of the crimes and died while on house arrest in September.
But even if the gates are one day completed, they may already be obsolete. Back when city leaders decided to invest in the gates, St. Mark’s Square flooded a handful of times a year. Now, water creeps over the canal banks more than 100 times a year. As it was planned, 78 bright yellow floodgates will rise to part the sea using a system of compressed air and water displacement in what will eventually be one of the biggest engineering feats of its kind. The rising sea would essentially fill compartments inside the gates which are designed to rise to about a 90 degree angle to cut off the sea from the mouth of the lagoon. As the water recedes, the gates would slowly lower down, spilling out the displaced water back to the sea. The gate system would be activated when the tide hits 3 feet 7 inches. Flooding last Tuesday night reached 6 feet 2 inches, which is the highest the water has risen since 1966, when it hit 6 feet 4 inches. And the system was designed to be used just 20 times a year, but thanks to the rising sea levels, it would currently have to be closed once a day during rainy seasons.
Still the work goes on, and rarely smoothly. A test of the gates in early November caused such vibrations throughout the city that many people called emergency services to report what they thought was an earthquake. It was later reported that the gate testing hadn’t been authorized because the work isn’t close enough to completion and the rusty hinges could have caused a major maritime disaster had any snapped. No one has yet fully measured if those intense vibrations caused any structural damage to the buildings or in any way harmed the lagoon’s fragile ecosystem.
Venice has long been a city of vast contradictions. The very sea that makes it famous threatens it almost daily. But so do people. Only about 50,000 people live in Venice full time, though the city gets more than 36 million tourists a year. Giant cruise ships bring in huge numbers of tourists, all while threatening the vulnerable canals with the massive vessels. Overcrowding has long been an issue, but the city’s economy is completely reliant on them to survive. So too, Venetians are understandably angry over the events of the last week. Not only are they aggravated by tourists who are taking smiley “acqua alta adventure selfies” in waist-deep waters while they bail water out of their shops and restaurants, they feel the whole country has failed them. Alessandro Morelli, the head of the Italian parliamentary committee on transportation, has dispatched a special team to study why Moses isn’t running yet.
“These delays are an embarrassment for all of Italy and we urgently need a solution,” he said, stating what to Venetians has been obvious for nearly three decades.
The current mayor Luigi Brugnaro on Friday took the unprecedented step of closing St. Mark’s Square completely, essentially barricading the water in so it won’t seep into the city as rains and strong winds started pushing the tides higher once more. Brugnaro said that the high tide has caused “apocalyptic damage” to the city. “The future of Venice is at stake,” he said, adding that the damage will easily reach hundreds of millions of euro. That could be the understatement of the century. Tuesday night, just hours before the floods swept through the city, Venice’s regional council met in the historic city hall on the Grand Canal where years earlier the decision to build Moses was taken. This time, they voted down a budget measure that would have helped the city tackle climate change—in part because of how much Moses has cost them. A few minutes later, in what seemed like a not-so-subtle message from mother nature, the ancient chamber hall was inundated with water for the first time in the city’s history.