Lessons Paris Learned From the Flood of 1910

Lessons Paris Learned From the Flood of 1910
AP Photo/Francois Mori
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The Paris high water of 2016 was the worst in more than 30 years, but it came nowhere close to the historic and disastrous levels of the city’s 1910 flood, when the Seine reached more than 20 feet above its normal height. 

This year, the water reached above the knees of the Zouave, the stone soldier on the Pont d'Alma by which many Parisians measure the water's height. In January 1910, the water reached the Zouave's neck, a fitting metaphor for how many Parisians felt while their city lay under water after weeks of winter rain.

Much has changed since 1910 in Paris’ relationship with the river. Now there are large reservoirs upstream on the Seine which can drain water out of the river's channel to help lower the water level. And city officials have a detailed emergency plan in place. Earlier this year, experts created computer simulations to help better understand what might happen if the river reached 1910 levels again. 

But perhaps one of the biggest changes in flood preparedness has been a recovery of the memory of the 1910 flood. 

For decades, the flood -- which was the worst since 1658 -- was largely forgotten and little discussed. Postcards with dramatic photographs showing scenes of destruction but also of rescue and Parisians helping one another, were the way most people thought about that historic experience, but these were largely curiosities. Still those photographs captured one of the central experiences of the 1910 flood: Although central parts of the city were heavily damaged, the social fabric held together and Parisians rescued one another. 

Deaths were few, and the government response was hearty. Once the danger had passed, the urban landscape was rebuilt, and nearly all traces of the flood quickly vanished. Only a few markings on various bridges and other markers scattered throughout flooded neighborhoods remained to show people how high the water had climbed. 

Still confident in their ability to control nature, no one needed to remember the flood of 1910 as they repaired the damage. The postcards were relegated to the flea markets and specialty collectors' shops.

Climate change and a significantly expanded urban infrastructure have created a new and urgent need to remember 1910, because risk and vulnerability have greatly increased in Paris. With more Metro tunnels able to funnel water under the city and far more residents reliant on electricity than in 1910, a much greater number of people can be affected by even smaller floods. Now, forgetting is too dangerous, because as cities like Paris face certain dangers in the future, failing to see what has been possible will deprive them of essential knowledge about how to face future environmental and technical threats. 

One of the best, but least recognized, steps in disaster mitigation is to recapture historical memory and to use it to plan for the future. Paris has begun to do that essential memory work. The city's current disaster planning uses the 1910 flood as a baseline and a worst-case scenario. 

Perhaps the recent flooding will also recall the 1910 flood to popular imagination in hopes that ordinary Parisians, and disaster planners in cities around the world, can plan for the future with important lessons from the past.

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