ROME -- Italy's government declared a state of emergency Thursday in flood-ravaged Venice, seeking to release funds to repair the historic lagoon city after it was damaged by the highest tide in 50 years.

A cabinet meeting approved a special decree that included $21.7 million in immediate financial aid aimed at helping the city recover.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte described the flooding as "a blow to the heart of our country," after spending Wednesday night in Venice, where world-famous monuments, homes and businesses were hit hard by the exceptional flooding.

Venice's mayor said the damage is estimated at "hundreds of millions of euros." Mayor Luigi Brugnaro blamed climate change for the "dramatic situation" in the historical city and called for the speedy completion of the city's long-delayed Moses flood defense project.

The water levels reached over 6 feet, 1 inch above sea level Tuesday, the second-highest level ever recorded in the city and just 2½ inches lower than the historic 1966 flood. Another wave of exceptionally high water followed Wednesday.

The exceptional flooding was caused by southerly winds that pushed a high tide, exacerbated by a full moon, into the city.

Although the waters have fallen from the peak reached late Tuesday, St Mark's Square remained partially flooded on Thursday and a new peak water level is expectedtoday.

In Venice, the crypt beneath St. Mark's Basilica was inundated for only the second time in its history. Damage was also reported at the Ca' Pesaro modern art gallery, where a short circuit set off a fire, and at the La Fenice theater, where authorities turned off the electricity as a precaution after the control room was flooded.

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