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Death toll in Italy storms and flooding rises to 17

The death toll in Italy has risen to 17 after a week of severe weather and flooding across the country, according to Italy's Civil Protection Agency.

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Dakin Andone, Gianluca Mezzofiore
Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
(CNN) — The death toll in Italy has risen to 17 after a week of severe weather and flooding across the country, according to Italy's Civil Protection Agency.

The onslaught of strong wind and heavy rain over the past week devastated parts of Italy and led to the worst flooding Venice has seen in at least a decade.

In the northern region of Veneto, damage estimates have reached over one billion euros, and several villages have been cut off as a result of landslides.

The severe weather also wrought havoc on the environment, with dozens of hectares of forestry -- including the famous 'Violin Forest' -- decimated after winds reached up to 190 kilometers per hour (118 mph).

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."

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.

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