The Mayor of Venice has called for a state of emergency as parts of the Italian city are submerged under water following the highest tide in more than 50 years.

A tourist walks with her luggage over her head near the Rialto bridge in Venice floods
Venice is calling for a state of emergency as it's hit by its worst flood in 50 years ©Stefano Mazzola/Awakening/Getty Images

Tourists and residents have been wading through knee-deep water in Venice following a powerful wind and rain storm on Tuesday night. Sirens warned of the rising tide as high waters peaked at 1.87 metres (more than six feet) across the canal city by 11pm. By Wednesday morning, more than 85% of Venice was flooded, authorities said. Water submerged most streets and squares and streamed into cafes, businesses and homes, bringing the city to a virtual halt.

Cafes and alleyways are submerged under water in Venice
The flood has brought Venice to a virtual halt ©Stefano Mazzola/Awakening/Getty Images

Two people have been reported dead and three vaporetti (Venice’s public waterbuses) have sank. St Mark's Square, one of the city's lowest points, was one of the worst hit areas. The crypt of St Mark’s Basilica was flooded by more than three feet of water, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

The Piazza San Marco under water during a flood
St Mark's Square after Tuesday's exceptionally high tide ©Stefano Mazzola/Awakening/Getty Images

"We’re currently facing an exceptionally high tide. Everyone has been mobilised to cope with the emergency," Mayor Luigi Brugnaro tweeted. "We ask the government to help us. The cost will be high. This is the result of climate change.” In a follow-up tweet he called it a "dramatic situation."

At a press conference earlier today Burgnaro called for a state of emergency. The mayor said the situation in Pellestrina, an island on the edge of Venetian lagoon, is critical because water has overwhelmed sea walls.

People walk across and take photos at the flooded St. Mark's Square
People walk across and take photos at the flooded St. Mark's Square ©Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

Schools and hospitals have closed and authorities have also advised citizens against leaving their homes. The Italian coast guard has deployed local boats to serve as water ambulances. And temporary ramps have been laid out for visitors and residents. 

Only once since records began has the water reached higher than Tuesday's tidal surge, peaking at 1.94 metres in 1966, according to government statistics.

People assess damages in a wing of St. Mark's Basilica
People assess damages in a wing of St. Mark's Basilica ©Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

Venice routinely floods several times a year, but in recent years the phenomenon, known as acqua alta (high water) has worsened as sea levels rise. The city is building system of movable barriers to ease the effect of high tides, but the project has been hit by scandals and delays and has yet to be completed.

With further bad weather expected in the coming days, tourists have been advised to exercise caution. The regions of Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily are also on maximum alert as torrential rain and fierce winds lash the south of the country.

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