Jackson′s New Book Tells the Story of a Parisian Catastrophe

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One hundred years ago this month, the city of Paris was under water.  A new book by Rhodes College history professor Jeffrey H. Jackson, titled Paris Under Water:  How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910 tells the largely forgotten story of how the French capital survived its worst flood in 250 years.  A website, www.ParisUnderWater.com accompanies the release of Jackson′s book filled with dozens of dramatic photographs of the city′s suffering.

In January 1910, the Seine rose over 20 feet above normal.  Unusual amounts of rainfall and heavily saturated soil created a perfect storm of extreme conditions.  With nowhere else to go, water swelled the churning, overflowing river sending thousands of city-dwellers into emergency shelters when it invaded their homes and businesses.  The Seine devastated large portions of the French capital, thrusting the City of Light into a cold darkness when the electricity went out.

In 1910, Parisians were very proud of the metropolis they had built.  Ironically, much of the flood’s damage was caused by urban development.  Jackson’s research also sheds light on how modern cities can survive natural disasters as well as the environmental challenges of urbanization.

During the flood, the sewer system installed in the 1860s could not carry enough water away from the city’s core.  Even worse, sewers backed up, pushing water into thousands of structures.  Fearing that their buildings would be overwhelmed, concierges pulled the drain plugs in basements to let the water escape.  Little did they know that they had actually removed the last barrier to the murky water’s infiltration from the sewer below.

Likewise, water rushed through the tunnels of the ten year old subway system.  Areas far away from the Seine -- particularly the Right Bank neighborhood around the posh department stores -- soaked under several feet of water, and boats floated through the streets.  No one dreamed that water could reach this part of Paris, but the Métro funneled the river to unexpected destinations.

In 1910, Parisians survived by pulling together.  The government, the Red Cross, and the Catholic church opened shelters throughout the flooded zone.  Police, firefighters, and soldiers rescued stranded residents from their homes and distributed relief supplies.  Ordinary Parisians built wooden walkways in the streets and rowed their neighbors to safety.  Posters went up around Paris asking for donations for the victims.  Parisians responded with millions of dollars worth of gifts.  Today, Paris’ flood emergency plan is based in part on the failures and successes of the city 100 years ago.

Paris in 1910 had an active social network that proved far more important than any urban engineering.  As residents of New Orleans discovered during Katrina, urban infrastructure alone will not save us from nature, and the failure of the human infrastructure can lead to profound suffering.  Surviving a catastrophe in the city requires a people-oriented plan and a strong community.
 
Jeffrey H. Jackson is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Environmental Studies Program at Rhodes College.  Paris Under Water is published by Palgrave Macmillan.  For information about Jackson′s upcoming appearances, visit his blog:  www.parisunderwater.blogspot.com.