Why you should care
Because Mother Nature also speaks French.
No couples kissed under the Pont-Marie last weekend in a bid to secure eternal love. Sure, plenty stood on top of it and on the City of Light’s many other bridges, but they weren’t staring into each other’s eyes. Instead, their gaze was fixed on the rising Seine and the anchored riverboats bouncing around in the brown water.
River traffic was halted, meteorologists gasped with despair and the Louvre and Orsay museums, which sit on opposite banks of the river, shut so curators could move paintings to safety. But even as they watched the waters rise, the French knew that this flood wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Back in 1910, a January deluge turned Paris into Venice for a week — river levels rose nearly 30 feet above normal — causing roughly $1.5 billion worth of damage, in today’s terms.
Parisians saved themselves. The community held together.
Jeffrey H. Jackson, author of Paris Under Water
“For some people it was a party. It was a sort of spectacle,” says Jeffrey H. Jackson, author of Paris Under Water, for whom photos of tourists gawking at the weekend’s flooding were all too familiar. Folks were just as transfixed in 1910, and even made bets on which log or barrel would make it under certain bridges first. Paris used to flood regularly, but residents in prewar Paris weren’t expecting 1910 to be an exceptional year. They lived in one of the world’s most exciting cities, complete with electricity, elevators and the telegraph — and suddenly, one by one, all symbols of modernity shut off as the waters rose. Parisians took to whatever boats they could find, rowing from house to house to rescue those who were trapped. The Louvre didn’t flood, thanks to creative sandbagging, but the fully electrified train station that’s now home to the Musée d’Orsay was inundated completely, and photographers made sure to capture the eerie water that filled its interior.
Topographically, Paris is a basin, with hills in Montmartre and Montparnasse rising in the north and south of the city, respectively. When it comes to flooding, that means big trouble for anyone who lives in the city center, which in 1910 was not so different than it is today — the city’s hoi polloi on the Île Saint-Louis were trapped alongside students and the poor on the Left Bank. But it wasn’t just the center that got soaked, thanks to yet another modern marvel: the Métro. Freshly dug tunnels for what would become today’s No. 12 line allowed Seine water to snake north, spewing out at the Gare Saint-Lazare. In fact, while Parisians were watching the riverbanks, the water was coming up from under the city, taking advantage of Métro and sewer tunnels, and flooding neighborhoods without breaching the high walls built around the Seine.
Meanwhile, Paris was mobilizing: Citizens dug out their boats while the military brought in a fleet of small canvas dinghies, and civilians and soldiers alike rowed around to rescue people from second-story windows. “The first responders in any disasters are the other people on the ground: neighbors, friends, family,” says Jackson. “Parisians saved themselves. The community held together.” While there was plenty of destruction, the city wasn’t ruined in a permanent way. Maybe that’s why the flood has been largely forgotten in the bigger historical narrative of Paris … or maybe that’s because World War I, just four years later, would prove so much more devastating.
Even as the lights went out and the trappings of civilization fell away, Jackson says, Parisians held onto the notion that they would triumph over the rising water. “In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a real faith that we would not be defeated by nature,” he says. While modern civilizations perhaps better understand the virtue of balancing the interaction between humanity and nature — rather than just trying to bend nature to humanity’s will — Parisians in 1910 had faith that the engineering that had built the Eiffel Tower would save their city. The big thing that changed that attitude wasn’t the flood, but the war, Jackson says. “That’s the big cataclysm; that’s the catastrophe.”
The June sun is doing its best to help Paris dry out, but the riverside cobblestones and parkour courses — where Parisians exercise in the fresh air — remain underwater. As far as the Seine’s concerned, 2016 was a big year, but nothing compared to 1910.