Ask the History Doc: Another Paris Flood?

Ask the History Doc: Another Paris Flood?

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Dear History Doctor:

Lately,
the news from Paris has been all wet—literally. Are they really
expecting a major flood? If so, what are they planning to do about all
of those art treasures?

-Lover of French Art

Dear French Art Lover,
Yes,
the History Doctor has been hearing the same sort of thing. Since
illness prevented a first-hand look at the potential crisis, the
History Doc decided to poke into the history of recent flooding in
Paris in some records available outside France and see what the plans
are for this time around. The result of these inquiries shows that
although the threat seems quite real, the situation just might offer a
way to help ease some of the current stress between the US and France.

The
Seine, as it turns out, floods at least a little bit rather regularly.
Of course, some small rise in the river does not do much harm. In
January 1910, however, there was a flood that might have made Noah
feel right at home. In an eyewitness account which can be found in THE
WORLD’S GREAT EVENTS, Vol. 9, there are descriptions of crowds
gathering along the river embankments early in the flood’s progress,
“admiring the headlong rush of the silent yellow river that carried
with it logs and barrels, broken furniture, the carcasses of animals
and perhaps sometimes a corpse,” astonished as they witnessed “great
piles of stones, and the roofs of sheds emerge momentarily… and then
vanish… while barges and pontoons… rose gradually to the level of the
streets.”

Small towns near the
Seine flooded, the electricity failed in Paris, transportation no
longer transported, homes were filled with water. And to crown it all,
the public clocks, which were controlled by a compressed-air plant,
ceased to function when that plant flooded, freezing time for all of
Paris at onze heures moins dix.

The
D’Orsay station became just another port of call for the Seine, which
flowed through the station and then out though the ventilation shafts.
The station turned into a very large indoor pool as the central part
filled with the muddy water, submerging the trains beneath the deluge.
The water then flowed into the St. Germain quarter, creating much
havoc. As the Pont d’Alma began to disappear (it did not go under
completely), a few inhabitants of Paris did understand that the
immediate danger would have been much worse if the river had swept
directly over the embankments on the Right Bank.

Men
worked furiously for three days to sandbag the Right Bank. As the Seine
rose, so did the sandbags, which were backed at intervals by wooden
screens.

Before it was all
over, the river had risen five feet over the level of the embankment,
and so had the sandbags. The men had constructed a barricade half a
mile long. At one point, one of the engineers reported that if the
barrier did not hold, “five feet of water will sweep across the Place
de la Concorde, the Boulevards—over everything.”
That night a
shivering crowd gathered together near the Quai de Louvre, which had
been barricaded off by police. There was little noise and much anxiety
for the treasures, which seemed to be threatened. In the darkness, the
crowd could see nothing of the feverish activity going on along the
southern side: some men trying to construct cobblestone barriers to
fill a gap along the south side of the Louvre, others digging up the
ground between poplar trees to stuff the earth into bags for a barrier,
with groups trying to nail together driftwood fished out of the river
to strengthen the barrier.

One
witness described how he peered over the barrier, expecting to find the
river several feet below, and instead found he could reach out and
touch it. He declared that “a few hours later and the river would have
won; all the basement of the Louvre would have been flooded, and the
water would have carried ruin across the Rue de Rivoli and Palais
Royal.”

Although cabs
continued to try to drive for several days after the start of the
flood, within a short time the cabmen and even the chauffeurs refused
to cross any of the bridges at all, declaring they “knew” the bridges
were not safe.

After several
days, part of the Place de l’Opera began to collapse, and many of the
bridges were closed. At the worst point, all nine bridges between Pont
Neuf and Pont de Grenelle were blocked off.

Twenty
percent of the then-residential area of Paris was under water. Men, who
tried to continue to go to work, frequently returned home to find their
entire street flooded, even though it had been passable that morning.
Sometimes whole streets collapsed suddenly, as the support underneath
gave way. One man’s description is typical: “One evening I was walking
down a street which a few hours before had been thick with traffic. A
single cart passed down beside me, and, at once, without the slightest
warning, the road began to undulate; and the next minute I was in water
up to the knees….”

The water
had rolled into Paris on January 21, though the start of the trouble
was several days before. It was not until the first sunny morning, on
January 29, that the crowds gathered to watch the river’s progress
could stop murmuring ca monte and begin to relax as the Seine began to
retreat.
And what about today? Florence is still trying to recover
from the devastation of the flood that struck there in the 1960s and
more recent flooding in Germany and the Czech Republic did untold
damage to priceless art treasures. Since the Seine has indeed flooded
again since 1910, but never as badly, Paris does not believe it is
immune from another catastrophe. One official from the regional
environment bureau agreed that a catastrophic flood was certain to
happen, saying it was not a question of “if” but of “when.” The run-off
basins, located outside of Paris, can hold less than a fourth of the
several billion tons of water that might arrive in the Marne, the Aube,
and the Yonne Rivers in case of heavy rains. Whatever could not be
contained would flood into Paris, invading the Metro, undermining the
foundations of buildings, and, of course, threatening the Louvre and
d’Orsay.

Both museums are
particularly vulnerable. D’Orsay was so badly damaged while it was
still a railroad station that it seems evident most of its art would be
in danger. The Louvre has recently excavated even deeper down into its
beginnings and has made use of these lower levels to showcase, for
example, wonderful pieces from Egypt. Even the more modern Pompidou
Centre might be in danger, in its case from rising groundwater.

Planning
has been underway for some time to develop a strategy to safeguard
vulnerable art treasures. It was finally agreed that if a serious flood
appeared to be immanent, at least some works should be moved to a
secret location to the north of Paris. The government has guaranteed
the museums an advance warning of 72 hours, so that items might be
evacuated safely. Most works will be carried to higher floors, if that
is possible. Others will be moved out entirely.

And
how does a potential flooding crisis help ease Franco-American
relations? Well, some of the objects in the Louvre, for example, are
not easily moved, being too heavy or too cumbersome. The plan for those
objects is to protect them as much as possible from water and mud. And
what are they going to protect them with? The Louvre has announced that
it is stocking up on– plastic sheeting! Can duct tape be far behind?
Since America has now retreated from Alert Level Orange, perhaps we
could generously offer to the French our excess duct tape and plastic
sheeting—all in the name of artistic preservation, of course. It
couldn’t hurt.

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