Paris region prepares in case of ‘flood of the century’

Bertrand Guay, AFP | Archival picture shows the river Seine at above normal levels in Paris in March 2001.

In 1910 residents of the Paris region endured a massive flood as the river Seine rose eight metres above its normal level. More than 100 years later, officials are preparing a full-scale rehearsal in case of another disaster on the same scale.


The “1910 Great Flood of Paris” overwhelmed many parts of the French capital and was widely documented in photographs. Black and white pictures show streets turned into waterways and metro entrances into wells.

The river Seine, which cuts through the heart of the city, has periodically risen above normal levels – notably in 1924, 1955 and 1982 – but never again to the extent witnessed at the start of the 20th century.

A postcard from the 1910 Great Flood of Paris shows passersby on the Pont de l'Alma near the Eiffel Tower
A postcard from the 1910 Great Flood of Paris shows passersby on the Pont de l'Alma near the Eiffel Tower

Now concerns are growing that a centennial flood – which refers not to the frequency of an uncommonly large flood, but its chances (1/100) of occuring on any given year – would catch residents dangerously unprepared.

In an effort to help authorities and ordinary people prepare for the nightmare scenario, the Paris police prefecture will spearhead the so-called Sequena 2016 exercise between March 7 and 18.

It is a full-scale rehearsal of the necessary steps police, firemen, city administrators and many other personnel will have to take if a new monster flood strikes.

As part of the unprecedented test run, the Paris region’s Urban Planning Institute (IAU) has produced a series of 3D animated videos predicting the extent of flooding and highlighting potential trouble areas.

The results are eye-opening: the images show the Louvre Pyramid and the Eiffel Tower surrounded by the tide, and part of the Tuileries gardens featuring a new lake.

Rail and rats

Sequena 2016 officially kicks off at the Maison de la radio – an iconic Paris building that houses public radio stations and practically sits on the banks of the Seine – in the presence of Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and Paris Prefect Michel Cadot on the morning of March 7.

The crisis management exercise will then proceed as if the Seine was rising by 50 cm daily until reaching eight metres -- which was around the height of the river during the worst of the 1910 deluge. The third day promises to be particularly exciting as teams deal with the virtual interruption of public transport, the shutdown of hospitals, and a wave of rats escaping flooded basements.


In all, operations are expected to mobilise 900 emergency personnel, 150 police officers, 40 emergency vehicles and four helicopters across Paris and four neighbouring departments. The exercise will also include the participation of 87 public and private institutions, including the network of Paris hospitals, the national SNCF rail network, the EDF energy firm, as well as telecommunications and waste disposal companies.

Among other drills, a metro station will be walled off as if to prevent water from reaching train platforms and regional radio stations will simulate emergency alerts and news bulletins. The Musée d'Orsay, home to hundreds of French masterpieces, will practice moving works to pre-designated safe areas – a procedure that is common to all museums in Paris.

Up to €20 billion in damages

According to figures by the police, a flood the same size as the one in 1910 would submerge 500 square kilometres of the metropolitan region. “Around 830,000 people live in the flood zone and several million people would be directly affected” Cadot told the AFP news agency in a recent interview.

The IAU estimates that 435,000 homes would be exposed to flood waters, with around half of them exposed to at least one metre of water. It said that around 100,000 businesses, representing 750,000 jobs would be directly impacted.

While a flood of the magnitude seen in 1910 remains unlikely, Paris authorities know they cannot afford to be ill-prepared for the eventuality. It could come at an estimated cost to the city of €17- €20 billion.

Inscription in the entrance of France’s Agricultural Academy shows the water level during the flood of 1910.
Inscription in the entrance of France’s Agricultural Academy shows the water level during the flood of 1910.

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