Saturday, January 16, 2010


It must have been a day like today that ushered in the Great Paris Flood of 1910.  We awoke to light rain that, as the morning progressed, began to drum harder and harder on the glass roof of our small covered courtyardBy mid-afternoon, the rain was falling in sheets and the wind blew the umbrellas of passersby inside out.  

It was a perfect day to visit the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. The library is hosting Paris Inondé, an exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of one of the worst floods in the history of Paris. 
In one terrible week of rain and snow from January 20 to January 28, the Seine, the river which flows through the heart of Paris, rose from 3.80 meters (12.5 feet) to 8.5 meters (27.9 feet). The tunnels below the city - 1,200 km  (746 miles) that housed the water and sewage systems, telephone cables, pneumatic message tubes, the subway and even vestiges of tunnels from Roman times - filled to overflowing.  Water began seeping into basements and Paris began to flood from above and below.  

As the water rose, it transformed the streets into canals and Paris into Venice. Journalists and photographers from around the world, lugging their heavy photographic equipment, came to record the scene, which was the first big catastrophe for this new media. Reproductions of photos and post cards were quickly made available and sold in the millions. Well-to-do Parisians hired boats and paid 50 centimes to have their photos taken braving the flood.
For the dispossessed, however, life was more difficult. There was no transport, no light and no heat.  Food, which usually came down the Seine in barges, was in short supply since the boats could no longer pass under the bridges. Most people could not even assuage their misery with drink since  the wine depots of Bercy were also underwater. The broken kegs added to the tons of debris clogging the river.

Although loss of life was minimal, about one-quarter of the 80,000 buildings in Paris were inundated and 150,000 people were homeless and without employment.  Another 200,000 people fleeing the surrounding countryside sought refuge in Paris. Damage was estimated at 400 million francs, roughly one billion euros ($1.4  billion) in today's currency.

The historian, journalist and socialist leader Jean Jaures, among others, urged collective action. Dans tout désastre il y a une lecon - In every disaster, there is a lesson, he wrote in L'Humanité, the left-wing newspaper he edited. With a sense of solidarity that catastrophes often foster, the government, business, charitable organizations such as the Red Cross, and various women's groups mobilized to provide assistance and housing to the flood victims. Parisians set about cleaning up and rebuilding the city and by April, Paris was once again a functioning city.
Five years later, the experience gained by aid groups during this natural disaster would help the French people weather the far more devastating man-made disaster of  the First World War.

To see more of my photos, click here

                                   A bientôt, 

Paris Inondé
Bibliothèaue historique de la Ville de Paris
January 28-March 28, 2010
Tuesday-Sunday, 1 p.m. -7 p.m.
22 rue Mahler, Paris 4eme

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor and
courtesy of the  Bibliothèque Historic de la Ville de Paris


  1. Fabulous photos, Geraldine! I had read about that flood, but these photos really make it more real. And it's fascinating to see your current photos of the same locations and how they appeared in 1910. It must have been horrible! You're right--Paris really did turn into Venice, didn't it!?

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