In March 2016, Paris carried out an operation to help the city prepare for the possibility of a centennial flood on a par with that experienced almost a century ago.
Rewind to January 20, 1910. Rising from its bed, the river Seine creeps up over the city and its suburbs. Within a week the streets are submerged; the French capital is completely paralysed. No public transport, no heating, no communications, and no electricity. Picture the scene…
The 52-minute, docu-fiction ‘1910: Paris sous les eaux’ follows the footsteps of a journalist and photographer from the ‘Petit Parisien’, one of biggest daily newspapers in France at the time. The experiences of the intrepid duo are woven between archive film footage and photos, and commentary by modern-day academics from the fields of history, geography, and town planning.
Although not the first ‘great flood’ to take Paris by surprise (the most previous was in 1870), the 1910 inundation was the first to be captured in celluloid and photos.
The black and white images immediately transport the viewer into a bygone era. They speak volumes about the raw reality of the crisis. We see horses struggling knee/chest deep to pull carts through the water, valiant trams combatting the flow, shopkeepers and householders negotiating makeshift footbridges built from anything to hand – chairs, suitcases, planks, barrels… and then there are the rowing boats dotting the streets, used as punts to ferry people and goods around.
Solidarity, suburbs & sewage
Despite the enormity of the situation, historians tell us that a strong sense of solidarity emerged during the week-long crisis.
As the Seine crept 8.62 metres above its ordinary level, neighbours really did pull together, helping each other out in the worsening conditions. And bearing in mind the calamity took place in January temperatures, the conditions must have been particularly harsh. Parisians would have suffered from the damp, especially since their heavy clothing and leather footware would have been difficult to dry out. Then they had to contend with the cold and dark in the absence of electricity or gas. Food supplies would have been a concern too.
As the days passed, fears rose of epidemics, such as typhus, breaking out; and they were well founded. Just over 60 years earlier, in 1848, a cholera epidemic in the overcrowded city centre had killed 20,000 inhabitants.
At the beginning of the 1900s, one of the prides of Paris was its ‘modern’ sewage system, which had taken shape since the 1850s. But not designed to cope with such extreme circumstances, it was disrupted by the deluge, as were the city’s waste disposal services. One resort, adopted by the city authorities in a desperate bid to avert an epidemic was to jettison cartloads of rubbish over the bridges (at dawn to keep the action as discreet as possible!) into the Seine. Yet this plan to wash the rubbish away (into the unsuspecting suburbs!) backfired: due to the high water levels it remained blocked, unable to pass under the bridges.
The flood hit the capital hard, but its suburbs came off the worst.
Thousands of inhabitants were made homeless and lost their jobs, as buildings and businesses succumbed to the water. In those days social protection in the forms of a guaranteed wage and redundancy pay did not exist. Fortunately associations did what they could in the form of free food and shelter. Furthermore, significant money was raised through campaigns appealing for donations.
The supply chain by barge on the Seine was suspended. Electricity was cut off for much of the city (many of the power stations were located near or on the banks of the Seine). As for the public transport system, it was quite literally washed out!
One tragic photo of the beautiful Gare d’Orsay – then a fully functioning railway station (now a museum) – reveals its interior hall transformed into a vast lake, with just the rooftops of some trains still visible. Another snap shows the entrance to a metro station filled almost to pavement level.
At the time of the 1910 flood, Paris was in the midst of building out its metro system – having started its first line in 1897.
With lines already in service, and others under construction, the underbelly of the capital was like Gruyère cheese! Pitted with huge holes and tunnels, perfect channels for the water to spread. The area around Gare St Lazare (opened in 1904) in the centre-north of the city, was submerged.
The only urban rail connection to remain in service was at the Gare de Lyon. Despite sitting on an east Seine-side site, it was fortunate enough to have been built, in 1900, on slightly higher ground. Nevertheless, the flooding transformed it into a veritable island, served by improvised boat-punt ‘taxi’ services!
After seven days of disruption, just when Paris was tottering on the brink of a serious social and economic crisis, the Seine began to abate.
On the brink
‘1910, Paris sous eau’ may close with a reassuring ‘all’s well that ends well’ feel, yet film makers Éric Beauducel and Olivier Poujaud certainly leave their audience thinking.
What would be the repercussions of a similar, or worse, inundation in 21st century Paris?
“The Seine has always flooded; the pheonomon usually occurs every 100 years or so,” Mr Beauducel told Passion4Transport. “The experts know the river will break its banks again. Precautions have been taken that should reduce the level of water by about 50cm. But the big issue today is the population of Paris and its suburbs, which is obviously much greater than in the past.”
In 1910 there were around 900,000 people living in the suburbs; today several million are living here, in the very same places devastated by the flood. The impact of a similar event in the 21st century would be equally, if not more catastrophic. And not just in terms of the risk to human life, either. “Think about all the communications technologies and networks now running underground, plus the kilometres of transport tunnels,” points out Mr Beauducel. “The degree of disruption is potentially huge.”
“The idea for the film originally came from our producer, Régis Ayache,” he expands. says Mr Beauducel. “But after getting into the subject, I realised that it was a period in history that is not very well known – it has been somewhat overshadowded by World War II. It may seem that nothing really went on in these pre-war years, but in fact for Paris it was time of great transformation and modernisation.”
The Institut d’Aménagement et d’Urbanisme (IAU) has released two online videos showing the extent of flood damage if the Seine were bursts its banks in the coming years
Cover photo ©EKLA