Venice was hit by the highest tide in more than 50 years late Tuesday, with tourists wading through flooded streets to seek shelter as a fierce wind whipped up waves in St. Mark's Square.
Tourists walk in high water near Rialto bridge in Piazza San Marco on November 12, 2019 in Venice, Italy. (Photo: VCG)
The exceptionally intense "acqua alta," or high waters, peaked at 1.87 metres (six feet) as the flood alarm sounded across the Italian city of canals, the tide monitoring centre said.
"We're currently facing an exceptionally high tide. Everyone has been mobilised to cope with the emergency," Venice's mayor Luigi Brugnaro tweeted.
Only once since records began in 1923 has the water crept even higher, reaching 1.94 metres in 1966.
As emergency services took to the canals to survey the damage, Italian media reported that a 78-year old local had been killed by electric shock as the waters poured into his home.
The coast guard laid on extra boats to serve as water ambulances.
Tables and chairs set out for aperitifs bobbed along alleyways in the dark, as locals and tourists alike waved aloft inside-out umbrellas, the water slopping over the top of even the highest waders and wellies.
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.
"It will be a long night," Brugnaro tweeted, saying that as the water level began to drop again "the fears of a few hours ago are now being replaced by an assessment of the damage done".
He said he would declare a state of disaster for the city.
The exceptional flood, which he blamed on climate change, was "a wound that will leave a permanent mark".
At the sumptuous Gritti Palace, which has played host to royals and celebrities over the decades, including Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the decadent bar was largely underwater.
Rich tapestries were piled onto tables, while the waters lapped around velvet sofas and leather-bound books.