In the summer of 2005, Jeffrey Jackson, professor of history at Rhodes College, thought he was simply taking a tour of underground Paris: the City of Light's sewers. But he was surprised to come across an exhibit that chronicled a flood that devastated a city he thought he knew so well.
Jackson specializes in 19th- and 20th-century European history, and that includes cultural history in all its manifestations: music, literature, film, and art. He's authored a book called Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris, and he's served as a consultant for the PBS documentary Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story.
But the exhibit that summer was like nothing Jackson had seen: In January 1910 and due to a combination of unusually warm weather, heavy rains, and saturated soil, Paris and several surrounding villages found themselves several feet under water. What's more: The flooding wasn't the direct fault of the Seine, whose waters had indeed reached a record height. Headwaters from the Seine's swollen tributaries had been channeled beneath the streets of Paris — its new subway system, its state-of-the-art sewer system, and its "compressed air service," a network of pneumatic tubes that served the postal system, provided ventilation, and operated factory motors. It also ran many of the city's street clocks. When that pneumatic system flooded on January 21st, time in France's capital stood still — literally. It was 10:53 p.m.
Read about it in Jackson's Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910 (Palgrave/Macmillan). It's a valuable look at not only the flood of 1910 but of pre-flood Paris: the Paris of Baron Haussmann, the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, the Dreyfus Affair, and the Universal Exposition (which saluted progress through science and technology). It's about the people of Paris too: left-wingers, communists, and socialists versus right-wingers, monarchists, and nationalists.
Jackson maintains that the flood of 1910 (along with its rescue and cleanup efforts) helped bind these opposing factions into a community of Parisians with a shared purpose and prepared them to face the challenges of two world wars. He also maintains that it was Paris' very modernity — its Métro, its sewers, etc. — that put the City of Light, for several days, in the dark — its electricity gone and its streets under water, until, on January 29th, those waters began to subside. Number of homes flooded: more than 24,000. Evacuees: nearly 14,000. Hospitalizations: 55,000. Cost of the damage: 400 million francs ($2 billion in 1910 currency), with an additional 50 million francs in aid and assistance. The death toll?
"That's a tricky question," Jackson said by phone. "I don't have a good answer. It wasn't a massive number: The official number of drownings for the month of January was six. But that doesn't include the harder-hit suburbs and nearby towns."
What hit Jackson and the rest of the U.S. the hardest, late in the summer of 2005, was news of something else entirely.
"When I first saw those photos of the flood in the Paris sewer, I was drawn to the story but tucked the idea of writing about it in the back of my head," Jackson said. "Then Katrina happened. I decided right then that this project was one I needed to be working on. It may be about Paris, but it was relevant to what was happening, right then, in New Orleans.
"Paris thought of itself as having the most modern infrastructure in the world. But that infrastructure couldn't save Paris. It was the Parisians who saved Paris. During these disasters, it's the community that determines whether people are going to survive or whether they're going to suffer something more tragic. More often than not, people do come together."
Could such a catastrophe hit Paris again?
"No one really knows," Jackson said. "Reservoirs and a canal system that goes around Paris could help to divert the water. They've done other engineering tricks. But you don't know. You can't know. There's still that anxiety."