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France

Seine river flood dampens Paris boat cruises

Text by Gaëlle LE ROUX , Apoorva PRASAD

Latest update : 2010-12-29

Exactly one hundred years after the Seine broke its banks, paralyzing Paris for a month, the French capital's iconic river is once again threatening to overrun the city of lights.

In January 1910, Parisians were shocked to discover their river had overflowed its banks, flooding streets, apartment buildings and the metro system. Hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes and refugees gathered in makeshift shelters while the authorities moved on boats to rescue the trapped and distribute aid. The total damage wrought is thought to have amounted to some 1.5 billion dollars in modern terms.

This month, the Seine has risen to its highest level in four years, reaching 3.91 metres on Tuesday, just 40 centimetres short of the maximum level allowed for navigation. This is largely due to the exceptional amount of snow Paris has received since the end of November.

The popular river cruise companies Bateaux Mouches and Batobus have shut down their operations, and authorities have closed the city expressways on both sides of the river. Water is now lapping at the ankles of the Zouave, the statue on the Pont de l’Alma that Parisians have used since the 19th century to measure the level of the river.

But could the Seine reach the level of the 1910 flood and submerge the city of lights? According to Isabelle Leleu of the French Central Service of Hydrometeorology (SCHAPI), the phenomenon could occur again, but no one knows when it would take place.

“The 1910 flood was described as the centennial flood,” she told FRANCE 24. “But it’s something relatively rare,” she added. “The information we have suggests that this kind of flood happens every 200 years to 500 years.”

Jeffrey H. Jackson, professor at Rhodes College, USA, and author of Paris Under Water, a book about the 1910 flood, concurs. “The danger of a 1910 level flood is always possible, although conditions would have to be just right,” he told FRANCE 24.

In 1910, the river flooded due to a number of factors, Jackson says, including an especially rainy summer followed by a warmer winter that melted more snow than usual, as well as excess winter rain due to unusual meteorological conditions.

And the waters didn’t just come from the river banks, they came from underneath the city itself, overpowering the drainage systems and refilling an old underground channel.

“In addition,” he says, “the Seine invaded the Metro, so the network of tunnels carried water into areas it could not have reached on its own”.

Preventive measures in place

But a hundred years later, the authorities created several plans to prevent or at least control a disaster of the same magnitude.

“Devices have been put into place upstream: a whole system of large basins (reservoirs) that we call the Grands Lacs de Seine were constructed along the Marne, Aube, Yonne and Seine rivers,” says Leleu.

“There’s also a plan in place to protect Paris’s vast transport network, which includes deploying RATP employees at key points, and walling up Metro access openings,” she explained.

The plan includes protecting Gare de Lyon, “a nerve centre for Parisian transport” situated on the right bank some 50 metres from the river, with three metre-high walls, she said. According to the hydrometeorological expert, the administration has stocked “enormous” reserves of concrete and rough blocks to deal with possible floods. In addition, evacuation plans for city hospitals also exist.

But if all these measures fail, Parisians should be prepared to fend for themselves.

“In the case [it does flood]… it would be better to go seek refuge outside Paris because ordinary citizens would find themselves alone: the authorities would prioritize helping vulnerable persons,” said Leleu.

Date created : 2010-12-28

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