Paris floods: 100 years on, spotlight finally falls on event that plunged city into darkness
The summer had been wet, the winter even wetter, and bedraggled Parisians entered 1910 beneath an ominously heavy sky of gunmetal grey. At least, they thought, scurrying around the burgeoning Métro network of the self-anointed capital of modernity, it couldn't get any worse. They were wrong. It got worse than they could have ever imagined.
The latter half of January brought torrential downpours and, already swollen, the river Seine burst its banks. Streets were inundated. Homes were under water. Paris had seen in the century showcasing man's loftiest achievements and technological advances at the Universal Exhibition, but just 10 years later the city was brought to her knees by an old foe, Mother Nature.
Tomorrow, a century later, an exhibition at the Historical Library of Paris (BHVP) is taking people back in time to the month when the City of Light was plunged into darkness.
More than 200 documents, including photographs, postcards, maps and newspapers, are on show as part of an unprecedented attempt to chart the progress of the Great Flood.
The stark images show some of the city's best-known areas submerged and its bewildered inhabitants making their way down the boulevards in rowing boats. An interactive database allows visitors to make a virtual tour of some 300 streets that were flooded.
One piece of early film footage shows parts of the Champs Elysées with just the treetops visible.
One witness at the time described the scene: "Crowds had gathered on the embankments, 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, all racing madly to the sea; they had watched cranes, great piles of stones, and the roofs of sheds emerge momentarily from the flooded wharves and then vanish in the swirl of the rising water."
An episode as dramatic as it was brief, the flood receded in the collective memory of Parisians as the horrors of the first world war unfolded.
But historians believe it deserves to be remembered. With 20,000 buildings wrecked within days and 200,000 people made homeless, the deluge brought devastation to the city on a scale not seen for centuries.
According to measurements taken at the Quai de la Tournelle, the Seine reached 8.5 metres, the highest seen since 1658. Of Paris's 20 arrondissements, 12 were flooded. The total cost of the damage was estimated at 400m francs d'or – a sum the BHVP reckons is roughly equivalent in today's money to over €1bn (£900m).
For many wealthy residents and outside observers, the arrival of the waters had a novelty value; commentators joked that Paris had temporarily been transformed into Venice. Photographers descended, artists set up where they could and curious bystanders idled away afternoons watching life in the city turned upside-down.
The more sensationalist spoke of escaped crocodiles floating free. In an account for the Petit Journal, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote: "On Avenue Montaigne people organised pleasure tours by boat. For two sous, you pass by the smartest hotels and photographers will take your picture as a flood victim for the sum of 50 centimes."
But there was, of course, crisis amid the strangely carnivalesque atmosphere – and, in scenes presaging those 95 years later in New Orleans, it was the poor who were hit the hardest. Some towns in the immediate suburbs simply had no infrastructure to contain the water.
In the face of disaster, however, Paris squared up. Emergency services, police and charities swung into action and residents began building wooden walkways above the water. They reached the highest floors by stepladder. MPs sailed to work by boat and worked feverishly by gaslight until the flood waters receded.
As donations poured in from France and beyond, signs of solidarity emerged. Jeffrey Jackson, a US historian and author of Paris Under Water, an account of the flood published this month, believes the disaster marked a key moment in the population's ability to come together which contrasted starkly with the divisions several years before amid the tensions of the Dreyfus affair.
They could not have known it, but for Parisians it was a "dress rehearsal" for the unity needed in the first world war, he said. The response, however, was not enough for some, most prominently the leftwing hero Jean Jaurès, who chastised the state in the newspaper L'Humanité: "A society whose citizens are thus at the mercy of the elements is like a house without a roof," he wrote. "In every disaster there is a lesson."
Despite his criticisms, the political fallout was limited; Aristide Briand, the prime minister, was re-elected four months later. He was lucky: although there was considerable damage to infrastructure, human casualties were minimal and there was no mass outbreak of disease. Official records noted only one death by drowning, though historians believe the figure was higher.
If Jaurès was right, the lesson of the Great Flood is as applicable now as it was then, according to Jackson, who started researching his book around the time hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. "The lesson is that we can't necessarily rely on technology, on urban infrastructure," he said.
"Take the sewers [in Paris]. People had celebrated them … as the height of modernity. When those technological solutions to the problems had gone, the only thing they were left with was human solutions. The city was able to soldier on because of those strong ties."