Other Cities Ignore Paris Floods At Their Own Peril

Paris is flooding, and it should give us reason to pause and reflect on whether our cities are prepared for the impact of climate change.

This month marks the anniversary of the worst natural disaster in the modern history of Paris. On January 28, 1910, the Seine reached a height of nearly 28 feet, pushing up into the city's streets.

Thousands were displaced from their homes into government and church-run shelters, often narrowly escaping with their lives in boats rowed by French sailors. Neighborhood merchants put wooden tables along the streets to create improvised walkways allowing people to move through the flood zone. Barrels from wine warehouses situated along the riverbank were pushed out into the Seine's channel and crashed into bridge supports downstream.

More than 100 years later, Paris is once again flooding, a kind of wintertime high-water ritual that frequently plagues the city. While it's nothing like that earlier flood, the water is expected to crest at nearly 20 feet, shy of the 1910 record but still bad enough to shut down the subway, close the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, which sit on the river's banks, stop river traffic and push people from their homes.

As in 1910, Paris will recover, but the routine flooding there should be a lesson to other cities. Forgetting what happened is too dangerous because as cities such as 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.

A century ago, the severity of Paris' flood was the result of conditions created by major urban redevelopment, population growth and new construction. The city's new sewer system, built a few decades earlier, moved water underneath the streets and into homes.

When shocked residents found water in their basements, they pulled the drain plugs hoping to release it into the sewer. Instead, they allowed more water to invade their homes. Water coursed through a subway tunnel still under construction, carrying the Seine into neighborhoods in which no one expected it to go. The choices Paris had made about where to locate infrastructure and how to shape the city's environment unwittingly increased the severity of the flood. The city got in the way of natural processes and made the situation worse.

Throughout the world in our own time, cities are more prone to disasters than ever. Coastal cities see routine flooding where they once saw it only occasionally. In Miami, for instance, the average water height has been slowly increasing, so it takes much less water to flood neighborhoods than in years past. Chronic flooding in towns along the Eastern US shore and in parts of Louisiana's Gulf Coast is causing many communities to consider how they might respond, including relocating.

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