Paris Under Water

Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910
by Jeffrey H. Jackson
Palgrave Macmillan
272pp £20

The Great Flood of Paris of 1910 was one of the cruellest catastrophes in the long history of the city. It rained steadily in Paris through the winter of 1909/1910 and by the end of January the Seine had risen to the highest recorded level since the 18th century. The devastation was all the more poignant, however, as the waters threatened the new model city of Baron Haussmann, which was meant to be the very emblem of progress and the success of the French Republic.

At street level, the métro was paralysed along with all other forms of transport. The Ecole des Beaux Arts and the railway station at the Quai d’Orsay were both partly submerged. Bridges were under water and the population was terrified by press reports of deadly crocodiles swimming out of the zoo. When the waters finally receded in the spring, over 200,000 homes had been wrecked.

Jeffrey H. Jackson tells this epic story with wit and verve and his book moves at the cracking pace of a good novel. He is also a rigorous historian with a forensic eye for the telling detail excavated from the archives. So the story of the flood is told through police reports, press coverage, scientific revues and political debates as well as through the eyes of the ordinary Parisians who lived through the disaster. In this context Jackson is able to set the flood against the background of the natural disasters that have regularly devastated Paris and which are as central to the real history of the city as any military or political event.

There is also a timely agenda at work here; Jackson explicitly compares the chaos of the flood with Hurricane Katrina and the wrecked city of New Orleans which was left in its wake. He emphasises the everyday heroism of Parisians, united in culture and belief, and questions whether such unity exists in the city today. Crucially, this new history of the Great Flood of Paris ensures that its historical significance will not altogether recede from memory.

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