Seasonal flooding is expected in Venice. But this autumn — for the fourth time since 2000 — the high water has substantially exceeded historic norms.
The Venetian experience and response offers analogies for decisions unfolding from Sandy: In particular should our strategy lean toward absorbing or resisting?
Over the centuries Venice has made choices across this continuum. Some islands have been largely abandoned. Architectural, infrastructural, and economic adaptations have anticipated flooding. Large-scale engineering projects are underway to protect the city from flooding.
Much will depend, I expect, on the experience of the next two-to-five years. If Sandy is framed as an anomaly, choices will default to status-quo-ante. The 1821 flooding of the Battery is barely remembered. The Long Island Express of 1938 was an even worse storm and did not seriously dent post-war development. But if last year’s experience with Irene and this year’s with Sandy is followed in short order by a third perceived calamity: policy, strategy, and behavior will shift.
It is worth remembering that until the Portuguese, Dutch, and English began sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, Venice was the great European trading center and a significant Mediterranean power. The decline of Venice was mostly a matter of shifting trade patterns, but a series of powerful storms and floods in the year 1600 and afterwards accelerated the decline.
…Thus did Venice rise,
Thus flourish, till the unwelcome tidings came,
That in the Tagus had arrived a fleet
From India, from the region of the Sun,
Fragrant with spices — that a way was found,
A channel opened, and the golden stream
Turned to enrich another. Then she felt
Her strength departing, yet awhile maintained
Her state, her splendour; till a tempest shook
All things most held in honour among men…