Twelve people have been confirmed dead after severe flooding in Sicily, Italy, on Sunday, bringing the nationwide death toll from a week of extreme weather to 29.
Nine members of two families were among those killed, as they dined together in a house that was submerged by water from a nearby river that suddenly overflowed, according to the fire brigade, which said its divers had found the bodies.
Giuseppe Giordano, one of the survivors, told Sky TG24 the harrowing story of how he lost his teenage son, Federico, and one-year-old daughter, Rachele, in the incident.
Federico was trying to hold his sister above the deluge.
“I saw the windows had darkened. I took the car keys to try to leave and the window exploded, and then the wall unit fell and then I didn’t see anything else … maybe the light went out.”
He said he found himself swallowing water and managed to get out to a tree to hold onto for more than two hours yelling for help.
Italy’s civil protection agency said it was still looking for a doctor who had been on his way to work at a hospital Saturday night and was missing.
High winds and heavy rain have devastated parts of the country over the past week, causing the worst flooding in at least a decade in Venice, damages of more than 1 billion euros ($1.14 billion) in Veneto and landslides that have cut off villages, authorities said.
The situation in Sicily is “dramatic,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Sunday.
Conte will call a cabinet meeting to announce a state of emergency in affected regions, he said at a press conference in Palermo, Sicily.
Italy’s civil protection agency continues to monitor the situation, issuing weather warnings via Twitter, while volunteers from the Italian Red Cross work to rescue people.
Several of last week’s deaths were caused by falling trees as winds as strong as 190 kilometers per hour (118 mph) toppled acres of woodland, including the famous “Violin Forest” that provided wood for violin maker Antonio Stradivarius’ instruments.
Two young people died south of Rome when a tree hit their car. Another was hit by a falling tree while walking in Naples.
Roberto Ciambetti, president of the Veneto Regional Council, told CNN that around 300,000 trees were flattened after winds swept through the Val d’Assa in the Asiago plateau.
“Tens of thousands of tall trees were felled like toothpicks,” he said.
Ferocious winds drove the high tide to 156 centimeters (61 inches) above average sea level on Monday – one of the highest levels ever recorded. It left three-quarters of Venice submerged.
St. Mark’s Square was turned into a lake and floodwater spilled across the ancient marble floors of St. Mark’s Basilica.
“In a single day, the basilica aged 20 years, but perhaps this is an optimistic consideration,” Carlo Alberto Tesserin, head of the board responsible for St. Mark’s Basilica, said in a statement.
Floodwaters also covered several dozen square meters of the 1,000-year-old marble pavement in front of the alter of the Madonna Nicopeia, a 12th-century icon, and submerged the Baptistery and the Zen Chapel, Tesserin said.
Flood barrier project incomplete
This week’s flooding was caused by a seasonal high tide and a strong low-pressure system in southern Europe that brought strong winds from the south and pushed water up the Adriatic Sea into Venice. This is the peak time of the year for seasonal flooding known as acqua alta, or high water, in the city.
Flooding at high tide has become much more common in Venice because of climate change – a problem that will continue to worsen as seas rise because of increasing temperatures and melting ice sheets, according to CNN meteorologists.
Work to install innovative underwater flood barriers to protect Venice from serious flooding, known as the Moses Project, has been underway for years. However, it has not yet been completed, thanks in part to corruption and spiraling costs.
A spokesman for the Civil Protection Agency in Venice told CNN that the Moses system could have mitigated the impact of salt water on the city’s historic sites.
“Of course if the Moses project was completed the damages we are seeing now would not have happened,” he said, “but the project was not completed because of the high cost.”
The spokesman for the mayor’s office called for the project to be completed. “The Moses project is important to the Venetians,” he said. “This infrastructure must be completed to avoid extraordinary waters, like what happened on Monday.”
“The Moses project is important to the Venetians,” he said. “This infrastructure must be completed to avoid extraordinary waters, like what happened on Monday.”
A spokeswoman for the New Venice Consortium, which is responsible for the Moses system, told CNN: “The work on the Moses began in 2003. At the moment it is 92-93% concluded.”
Venice also has a system in place to monitor tides and warn of high water levels.
CNN’s Gianluca Mezzofiore contributed to this story.