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When Paris became Venice

When Paris became Venice

Living in one of the hot tourist destinations of the world, it is hard to believe that hard times of the proportion of a catastrophe fell on Paris about a century back. In 1910, Paris was inundated for close to 10 days bringing the city life to a spectacular halt.


Paris Inondé

The Cause

The summer in 1910 had been particularly rainy followed by a winter with precipitation of rain and snow. From 18th January, 1910, whole of Europe witnessed torrential rains making the rivers and their subsidiaries overflow. This led to a saturation of the earth thereby causing the river Seine to rise. The region around Paris and the city of Paris were not left untouched.


The Effect

Paris owed the conception of its drainage system, the distribution of potable water and prevention of risk of inundation to Engineer Eugène Belgrand (1810-1878). There had been inundations in Paris before. During the time of Eugène, the river Seine had risen to a level of 6.50 m (1876) on which he had based his network of surveillance of the river with the hydro-metric system at the basin of Seine. The river rose 2 meters higher than this reference point in 1910. For Parisians, the four statues of soldiers on the sides of  the 'Pont de l'Alma' (zouave, grenadier, chasseur, artilleur), measuring 6 meters high, were the popular references for visually measuring the rise of the river Seine*. Within a week from 20th January, the level of the Seine rose from 3.80 meters to its highest of 8.50 meters on the 28th of January**. Even though the mark steadily declined from then on for the next two weeks, the levels of water remained significantly high at 5.18 meters on the 14th February. It was not until March 15th that the river regained its bed without rising. 



In the rest of the city, as many as twelve of its twenty districts were affected. Water clogged the 1,200 km underground network of drainage, potable water distribution, telephone cable holes etc. 4 lines of metro were under construction at that time***. The construction of metro work was interrupted as water flowed through the tunnels. From there, it rose up to the Gare Saint Lazare. Out of the 10 major stations of Paris at that time (now only 6), as many as 4 were affected: gare d’Orsay, gare de Lyon, gare Saint-Lazare and gare des Invalides. This included 2 train lines running alongside the river Seine whose construction was done against the recommendation of the engineer Belgrand.  


The impact on public transport had been devastating. At the time, there were 11 companies of transport with tramway, horse, steam, compressed air, electric etc. Since the sources of energy were not available, the old omnibus hippomobile as well as 75,000 horses were put to the transport service. Gare de Lyon became an overnight stable. A large number of horses died because of difficult and potentially health damaging journeys.

 Paris Inondé


Out of the 80,000 buildings in Paris at the time, as many as 20,000 were inundated. 1,50,000 persons were stricken by the catastrophe, many of whom were deprived of work. Parisian suburbs were touched too and as many 200,000 persons sought to seek refuge in Paris. One person succumbed whereas the economic loss was considerable- thought to be around 400 million francs or 1 million Euro. The 'City of Lights' plunged into darkness as the factories, stations and cables supplying electricity were submerged. Even the areas that were not inundated remained cut-off from the electric supply. 


SOS Call

A nation-wide call for solidarity was made through newspapers, magazines, city municipalities, certain corporations etc. Municipal services, fire-fighters, 'les soldats du Génie' and volunteers worked without rest to put the city back together: building the causeways, pumping water, evacuating the inhabitants, restoring food supplies etc. The navy answered the call by Prefect Lépine to bring 300 Berthon lifeboats to Paris. These were foldable barges with flat bottom, made of canvas and a wooden structure. Several women's associations were particularly active with the French Red Cross. Asylums were made in the affected areas for disaster victims.This experience would contribute to the efficiency of aid during the world war five years later.

In the following weeks, the life started to come back to normal, slowly and progressively. The ferry services did not come back to normal till March and the metros till April. The government made a commission to assess the impact of the inundation and to propose preventive measures.


What if it happened again ?

Immediately after and over the course of last 100 years, various measures have been put in place to prevent a repeat of an event of the same magnitude. Interdepartmental Institute of Barrages-Reservoirs of Basins of River Seine (l’Institution Interdépartementale des Barrages-Réservoirs des Bassins de la Seine) have made reservoir lakes that allow the regulation of the course of water in the Paris region. These artificial lakes can reduce the rising of the river by 60 cms.


The city of Paris works within the framework of Plan for Prevention of Risks of Inundation (PPRI- Plan de Prévention des Risques d’Inondation), approved by the state in 2003 and revised in 2007. Other than this, there have recently been works to raise the parapets of the river banks and mending of the walls at the banks where the water-tightness was defective.


Exhibition- Inundated Paris 1910


Currently the Exhibition Inundated Paris 1910 is on at the Paris City Municipal Library from Janury 8th- March 28th, 2010. The exhibition presents more than 200 documents- original photographs, post-cards, posters, illustrated press articles, maps, paintings and drawings, advertisements, manuscipts and archives, news coverage etc. that reconstitute the event for today's public exactly 100 years after it happened. 


Visit the Virtual Exhibition




*In 1974, the stone bridge was replaced by a metallic bridge where only the statue of Zouave was conserved.

**The highest since February 1658 when river Seine rose to a mark of 8.81 meters.

*** In 1910, 6 lines of Metro were functional. The first metro line 'Vincennes-Etoile' was inaugurated in 1900.


photo credits:

La rue de Lyon, Janvier 1910 © Abert Chevojon/ BHVP / Roger-Viollet

La rue de Seine. Paris (VIe arr.), 29 janvier 1910. © Albert Chevojon / Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris / Roger-Viollet