Italy will today declare a state of emergency after floods brought carnage to Venice, flooding its historic basilica and leaving 'widespread devastation' in the city.
Prime minister Giuseppe Conte described the flooding as 'a blow to the heart of our country' as he inspected the damage in Venice last night.
At a cabinet meeting today, the government in Rome is expected to take on 'exceptional powers' to respond to the near-record floods.
Conte has also offered emergency funds after Venice authorities said the damage ran to hundreds of millions of pounds, including millions in St Mark's Basilica alone.
Venice archbishop Francesco Moraglia said the church had suffered 'irreparable damage' and the crypt was flooded for just the second time in its history.
Last night the waters in St Mark's Square had receded to puddles, but only a handful of tourists were crossing the plaza on Wednesday evening.
The basilica was closed to tourists as were many other Venice highlights including the Fenice Theatre and the Ducal Palace. Schools will also stay closed today.
Four Venetian friends who had gathered in the square, all wearing boots, said the relative quiet and lack of tourists was upside of an otherwise harrowing few days.
'We've never seen anything like it,' said Alvise, 19.
'The disaster that has struck Venice is a blow to the heart of our country,' prime minister Conte said at the scene of the flooding last night.
'The situation is dramatic... the people are suffering. It hurts to see the city so damaged, its artistic heritage threatened.'
The mayor of Venice has blamed climate change for the disaster but there was also anger among Venetians yesterday at the corruption which has held up a flood barrier project.
High waters brought misery to local residents - stranding boats and gondolas, battering shops and hotels and leaving many of the city's squares and alleyways deep underwater.
Mayor Luigi Brugnaro said the city was 'on its knees' and warned of 'widespread devastation' after the tide peaked at nearly 6ft 2in on Tuesday night, second only to the record 6ft 5in set in 1966.
Luca Zaia, the premier of the Veneto region, told Italian media that the city was 'faced with total, apocalyptic devastation'.
'I'm not exaggerating - 80 per cent of the city is under water, the damage is unimaginable,' he said.
Damage included five ferries that serve as water buses, a critical means of transportation in a city with no road or rail links except to the mainland.
Heavy rainfall across Italy, combined with high tides that were pushed into Venice by southerly winds, brought chaos to a city built on canals.
Water poured through wooden boards that shop and hotel owners have previously placed in front of doors to hold back water.
One person, a man in his 70s, was electrocuted when water entered his home on the barrier island of Pellestrina. Another fatality was also reported in the city, although it was not clear if the flood waters were directly responsible for his death.
The mayor said the floods were 'the effects of climate change' and demanded that a long-delayed barrier protection project 'must be finished soon'.
The so-called 'Moses' plan involves 78 moveable gates under the sea that can be raised to protect Venice's lagoon during high tides.
The project began in 2003 but has been plagued by corruption and rising costs and there is no completion date in sight.
In addition, a recent attempt to test part of the barrier caused worrying vibrations and engineers discovered parts had rusted.
'They've done nothing, neglected it. It doesn't work and they have stolen six billion euros. The politicians should all be put in jail,' said local Dino Perzolla, 62.
Italian environment minister Sergio Costa blamed climate change and the 'tropicalisation' of violent rainfall and strong winds.
'This is what is happening more and more often in the Mediterranean,' Costa said on Facebook. 'Global warming will destroy our planet if we do not immediately reverse the direction.'
Professor Nigel Wright, an expert in flood risk management at Nottingham Trent University, said the high water levels were a 'double whammy of an extreme high tide and the low pressure from a storm raising the sea level'.
'With sea levels rising this is likely to become more and more common causing untold damage to centuries-old buildings,' he warned.
'The city has long planned for a defence system around the Venice lagoon, but such plans take a long time to plan, agree and implement,' he said.
The basilica's sixth flood in 1,200 years was its fourth in the last 20, and the vestibule of the church was inundated with water yesterday.
The flood sparked fears for the church's collection of rich mosaics and artworks, and dirty water was swirling around marble tombs in the crypt last night.
'We're talking about millions of euros worth of damage,' said Carlo Alberto Tesserin, first procurator of the Basilica, who is the president of a team responsible for managing the historic site.
'We said last year that the Basilica had aged 20 years in a high tide. It risks having aged much more than that in this one,' he said.
Venice archbishop Francesco Moraglia told a news conference that 'the Basilica is suffering structural damage because the water has risen and so it's causing irreparable damage, especially when it dries out in the lower section of the mosaics and tiling.'
In addition, the electrical system at La Fenice theatre was switched off after floodwaters entered a service area, and firefighters tackled a blaze at the Ca' Pesaro modern art gallery which was caused by a short circuit.
One of Conte's colleagues, education minister Lorenzo Fioramonti, also raised global warming as a likely cause and said 'the consequences of climate change do not allow for delay'.
The 'acqua alta,' or high waters, rose above six feet as the flood alarm sounded across Venice on Tuesday.
'It was unbelievable, the water rose so quickly,' said resident Tiziano Collarin, 59, as he surveyed the damage. 'Windows were blown out, there are those who have lost everything.'
Marina Vector, who was yesterday scooping buckets of water out of the shop she runs with her husband, said the flooding was 'apocalyptic, enough to give you goosebumps'.
'The storm was so bad it broke the marble flood barrier out front. Nothing's survived,' she said.
Amid the carnage, tourists were seen wading through flooded streets to seek shelter while St Mark's Square was submerged by three feet of water - so deep that one man even swam across it.
Venice residents have been urged to take pictures and video footage of the damage to their homes in order to claim compensation later.
At least 60 boats were damaged in the floods, according to civil protection authorities, including some pedestrian ferry boats. Three barges are said to have sunk.
Tourists with heavy suitcases were forced to wade barefoot through the submerged alleyways while gondoliers baled water out of their trashed vessel.
Two French visitors who were caught out said they had 'effectively swum' after some of the wooden platforms placed around the city overturned.
Antique pieces of furniture could be seen submerged in low-lying hotels and homes while shopkeepers slopped water out of their flooded businesses.
The head of the Venice hotel association said the damage was enormous, with many hotels losing electricity and lacking pumps to remove water.
German tourist Gabi Brueckner, 58, said the nighttime drama had been 'horrifying'.
She echoed the mayor in blaming climate change and said she feared like many people that 'it will get worse and at some point Venice will drown'.
Water taxis attempting to drop people off at the glamorous and historic hotels along the Grand Canal discovered the gangways had been washed away, and had to help passengers clamber through windows.
The overnight surge triggered several fires, including one at the International Gallery of Modern Art Ca' Pesaro, with hundreds of calls to the fire brigade.
In addition, around 150 firefighters were deployed to rescue people stranded on jetties and to recover boats broken free from their moorings.
Much of Italy has been pummelled by torrential rains in recent days with widespread flooding as a result, especially in the southern heel and toe of the country. Further bad weather is forecast for the coming days.
In Matera, this year's European Capital of Culture, rain water cascaded through the streets and inundated the city's famous cave-dwelling district.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.