VENICE, Italy – Venice could use a bailout. The city built on water has too much of it.
Residents and tourists waded through knee-deep water Monday as they navigated the city's narrow streets and alleys, and its historic St. Mark's Square was inundated. Boxes of tourist merchandise floated inside the flooded shops around the square and even the city's famed pigeons sought refuge on rooftops and windowsills.
One of the highest tides in its history brought Venice to a virtual halt, rekindling a debate over a plan to build moveable flood barriers in an effort to save the lagoon city from high tides.
City officials said the tide peaked at 61 inches, well past the 40-inch flood mark, as strong winds pushed the sea into the city.
Alarms went off at 6:37 a.m. to alert citizens, but many residents were taken by surprise because authorities had initially not forecast such a high water level.
In St. Mark's Square, one of the city's lowest points, tourists tried to stay dry by hopping on cafe tables and chairs sticking out of the water. The water was so high that someone rowed a small speedboat across the wide square.
"It was quite an extraordinary experience," said Michel Gorski, visiting from Brussels with his wife. "We got stuck in the hotel for half a day but we didn't suffer. We were sorry for the restaurants and stores around, but there was no panic and everyone worked really hard to clean up quickly."
Workers were unable to install the traditional raised wooden walkways used during flooding because the water rose so high the platforms would have floated away too.
"There are very few streets that are water-free," admitted city spokesman Enzo Bon.
In an ironic twist, the flooding also idled the city's water buses because their boarding platforms were underwater.
Bon had no reports of damage to the city's architectural jewels, and the Culture Ministry was monitoring the situation.
It was the fourth highest tide since 1872, when the city started keeping records. The last time Venice saw such high waters was in 1986, while the all-time record was 76 inches (194 centimeters) in 1966.
That flood forced 3,000 people to evacuate and damaged many historic buildings, but largely spared the city's art — which had long ago been removed to upper floors because of frequent flooding by tides.
"In Venice, we know how to live with high water," said Bon. "Of course there are some problems, because today's was an exceptional event."
Giancarlo Galan, the conservative governor of the surrounding Veneto region, criticized Venice's center-left administration for failing to prepare for the flood and for allegedly stonewalling a long-planned system of barriers that would rise from the seabed to ease the effect of high tides.
The $5.5 billion project, called "Moses" after the Biblical figure who parted the Red Sea, has been under construction for years and is expected to be completed by 2011. The company building the barriers said, had the system been in place, the city would not have been flooded Monday.
Venice Mayor Massimo Cacciari insisted the city's experts had done a good job and had revised their forecasts well before the water came in. Cacciari, who has criticized the barriers, said the government-backed project would be completed.
With low tide setting in and waters receding Monday afternoon, some tourists were charmed by the water wonderland.
"The hotel had to turn off the gas and the electricity, but they made us a nice candlelit cold lunch," said Yacob Laurent, a visitor from Paris. "They gave us boots and my wife and I went for a walk. It was a lot of fun."