History Book Club

Paris Under Water is a History Book Club Selection.

There is an untouched quality to Paris, a sense that one of the most beautiful cities in the world could only have gotten that way by avoiding the many disasters (both natural and man-made) that have helped shape other great metropolises. But, of course, Paris has seen its share of catastrophes, and one of the most dramatic happened in the early years of the 20th century. In Paris Under Water, historian Jeffrey H. Jackson tells the story of the flood of January 1910, when the Seine suddenly and unexpectedly rose nearly 20 feet above its normal level. He examines how Parisians reacted at the time, why the flood has largely been forgotten and the lessons it holds for a world where global warming promises more such calamities. Paris sits in a basin that was regularly inundated. But by the late 19th century, authorities were confident that advances in engineering had left Paris largely immune to major flooding. Much of this confidence came from the rigorous modernization the city undertook in the 1850s and '60s under Georges-Eugène Haussmann. In addition to leveling whole neighborhoods and replacing them with beautiful Beaux Arts buildings and wide boulevards, Haussmann undertook a vast expansion and modernization of the city’s sewer system. He also created a Hydrometric Service that was tasked with predicting the level of the Seine. The Hydrometric Service designed mathematical models based on prior flood data, and made recommendations about the construction of the quay walls on the banks of the Seine. Not all of these recommendations were followed by later engineers. Haussmann’s redesign of Paris did more than modernize the city—it also pushed out some of the poorest inhabitants and much of the manufacturing. These people and factories relocated to the edges of the city and the suburbs (les banlieues), where they benefited less from the new urban infrastructure. The social friction engendered by this change would play itself out during the flood in ways that are only too familiar to us today, as the least advantaged lost everything under the water. Jackson vividly depicts the flood bringing out the best and worst in the people of Paris. Many Parisians banded together to help their neighbors and preserve their property. But there was also looting, bureaucratic bumbling and riots. In some ways, though, the flood of 1910 gave the French a chance to practice disaster management skills they would need a scant four years later, when World War I broke out and brought calamity to their doorstep. Jeffrey H. Jackson is to be praised for his exemplary research and historical insight. Paris Under Water sheds light on a historic episode that deserves to be remembered.