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'Flood of the century' fears rise in Paris along with the Seine

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2018-01-23 James McAuley

PARIS — Is this the dreaded “flood of the century?”

After an onslaught of constant rain, Paris’s fabled Seine River has flooded — again. On Tuesday, the water level reached approximately 4.9 meters and is expected to peak at just over 6 meters Saturday, according to Corinne Broussel, a deputy mayor of Paris. The river’s normal level is about 2 meters.

For the moment, City Hall is not anticipating a full-fledged crisis, Broussel said, although emergency precautions have officially been put in place. River traffic has been suspended, given that certain types of boats can no longer safely pass under the Seine’s historic bridges. Starting Tuesday, the RER-C, a major commuter rail line that follows the riverbank, will be closed down. The official flood emergency level is now “orange,” the second-most severe designation.

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As usual, the question on the mind of many a Parisian is whether this latest deluge will be the so-called “centennial flood” that locals and meteorologists have feared for decades.

This apparently impending catastrophe has been a concern since January 1910, when — after a similar season of heavy rains — the river's water level suddenly reached roughly 8.62 meters above its normal mark. Almost overnight, the city was transformed into a French Venice, its stately avenues and boulevards transformed into makeshift canals while basic infrastructure was destroyed.

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At the time, the capital was entirely unprepared, and the crisis lasted for two months from start to finish. With the metro shut down, Parisians went about their business in boats and makeshift wooden walkways. Thousands of others were evacuated.

In the century that has elapsed, there have been some close calls, but never anything quite as severe as 1910. In 1955, for instance, the river reached 7.1 meters, and 6.18 meters in 1982. Most recently, the Seine flooded in 2016 to a level of roughly 6.10 meters, which caused enough anxiety for the Louvre, which is on the banks of the river, to evacuate some of its artworks in basement storage for out-of-town safekeeping.

In 2016, there were some hiccups in the city’s plan to fight the flood. The flood warning system suffered a technical failure when pieces of debris in the rising water somehow managed to block the Seine's water-level sensors, which meant that they were actually underreporting the levels for a time.

Sebastien Maire, Paris’s chief resilience officer, could not immediately be reached for comment on the current situation. In an era of increased climate change — with global temperatures on the rise — Broussel said the city expects these abnormal events to become more common. Despite the 2016 flood, she said, “we learned from that experience.”

In general, Parisians measure how bad things are based on how much of the so-called “Zouave” is in the water.

On the side of the Pont de l’Alma, a bridge near the Eiffel Tower, the Zouave is a statue of the type of infantry soldier — usually a colonial subject from North Africa — once deployed in French military operations. This one, completed by the sculptor Georges Diebolt in 1856, refers to the Crimean War.

In 1910, the Seine rose all the way to the Zouave’s neck. In 2016, the water reached his thighs. In 2018, it’s risen to above his ankles — for now.


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