'Centential flood' fears in Paris as Seine overflows

The world's largest museum, which partly lies along the Seine, has shut its Islamic art display following a sharp rise in the level of the river.
Local residents paddling down a flooded street in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, a Parisian suburb, on Jan 24, 2018.
Local residents paddling down a flooded street in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, a Parisian suburb, on Jan 24, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (WASHINGTON POST) - After an onslaught of constant rain, Paris' fabled Seine River has flooded - again.

On Tuesday (Jan 23), the water level reached about 4.9 metres and was expected to peak at just over six metres on Saturday, said Ms Colombe Brossel, a deputy mayor of Paris. The river's normal level is about two metres.

For the moment, City Hall is not anticipating a full-fledged crisis, Ms Brossel said, although emergency precautions have been put in place.

River traffic has been suspended, given that certain types of boats can no longer safely pass under the Seine's historic bridges.

Starting on Tuesday, the RER-C, a major commuter rail line that follows the riverbank, was closed. The official flood emergency level is now "orange", the second-most severe designation.

As usual, the question on the minds of many Parisians is whether this latest deluge will be the "centennial flood" that locals and meteorologists have feared for decades.

This apparently impending catastrophe has been a concern since January 1910, when - after a similar season of heavy rain - the river's water level suddenly reached about 8.62 metres above its normal mark.

Almost overnight, the city became a French Venice, its stately avenues and boulevards transformed into makeshift canals while basic infrastructure was destroyed.

At the time, the capital was entirely unprepared, and the crisis lasted two months.

With the metro shut down, Parisians went about their business in boats and makeshift wooden walkways. Thousands of others were evacuated.

In the century that has elapsed, there have been some close calls, but never anything quite as severe as 1910. In 1955, for instance, the river reached 7.1 metres, and 6.18 metres in 1982. Most recently, the Seine flooded in 2016 to a level of about 6.10 metres, which caused enough anxiety for the Louvre, which is on the banks of the river, to remove some of its artworks in basement storage for out-of-town safekeeping.

In an era of increased climate change - with global temperatures on the rise - Ms Brossel said that the city expects these abnormal events to become more common. Despite the 2016 flood, she said, "We learned from that experience."

In general, Parisians measure how bad things are based on how much of the "Zouave" is in the water.

On the side of the Pont de l'Alma, a bridge near the Eiffel Tower, the Zouave is a statue of the type of infantry soldier - usually a colonial subject from North Africa - once deployed in French military operations. This one, completed by the sculptor Georges Diebolt in 1856, refers to the Crimean War.

In 1910, the Seine rose all the way to the Zouave's neck. In 2016, the water reached his thighs. In 2018, it has risen to above his ankles - for now.