Friday, May 22, 2015

A Long-Remembered Fear: the Great Flood

I’ve often walked down these stairs to get to the quai beside the river, but I don’t guess I’ll try it today.

Parisians have survived invasion from German armies and British tourists, and even from American photographers. Fortunately, so far they’ve avoided earthquakes, tornadoes, wild fires, and buffalo stampedes, and they seldom endure blizzards. Cold and hot come and go, as life on les grands boulevards continues into eternity. The Paris motto is “She is tossed but does not sink.” Parisians have seen it all and fear nothing – except a flood.

River basins are designed to flood — it’s part of the grand plan. Flooding distributes fresh new soil across large areas. It’s good for the land, but bad for cities and the humans who live in them. No one really likes waking up to water all around the bed. Having said all that, it remains to remind you that Paris is built in a river basin.

The city of Paris without urban development, around 1000 BCE. Imagine Notre Dame on the right side of the big island, and the gleaming white dome of Sacré Coeur on La Butte   Montmartre at the top of the photo. The popular Marais district is just above the right-most island. Now you see why Le Marais got its name – the “marsh.”

Every spring, the Seine floods, as the snows in the Alps and Jura mountains melt. The river rises, and the water swirls violently under the bridges. In country villages along the river outside Paris, meadows are inundated, low-lying roads are awash, and the gardens of riverside villas are submerged. It’s simply an annual event, and everyone expects it.
Some years are worse than others, though, depending upon the mountain snowfall. So when the floods come, people grow a little uneasy. You can never be quite sure how high the waters will roll …

The most famous – or infamous – Paris flood occurred in 1910. It really happened. We have pictures, not just stories. No one can accuse Parisians of exaggeration when it comes to the 1910 flood. They can prove it with photographs. And what a flood it was!

Le Pont de la Concorde in 1910

Le Pont Alexandre III in 1910

Pont Alexandre III in 2010

The 1910 flood level is well-documented. There are markers commemorating it in many spots along the quais and in the city.

During the Great Flood, Parisians did not resort to ark-building, but they had to take to their rowboats to get to the bakeries for daily bread. And the bakers kept right on baking. The flood lasted for weeks.

Northern Europe is laced with rivers and interconnecting canals. Many of the canals are very old, and barge traffic, vital to commerce, still moves along them. But some are quieter now, and taking a canal or river cruise is one of the nicest ways to travel. 

On this adventure, we went through many locks. It’s strange and exciting to ride the rising or falling waters in a lock. It is a highlight of river travel for me.   

A lock is so narrow you can reach out and touch the sides! 

During heavy rains, the Seine rises to “flood level” in Paris. Certain areas around the river are specially designed for flooding.

Normal level 

and flood level.

Rising waters can’t deter lovers! 
C’est l’amour aux bords de la Seine, comme d’habitude! 

In many places, the river inches up the stone embankment – well, technically, it centimeters up to within a foot (30-40 cm) or so of the crest. It looks like it may overflow at any moment. We all watch and wait – and sigh with relief when it does not.

It [Paris] is tossed but does not sink.

in Latin,

The coat-of-arms for the City of Paris

The flood level is maintained by the great skill and experience of the engineers who control the locks and reservoirs. Deep down inside us, though, the fear remains. A day may come when the unimaginable happens -- human technology succumbs, the mass volume of water will overpower human intervention, and Paris will sink. That is what we fear.

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