Paris Under Water
Jeffrey H. Jackson

Palgrave Macmillan
Hardcover/272 pages
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"A subtle blend of history, prophecy and humanity …"

Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910: A subtle blend of history, prophecy and humanity that illuminates the past and informs the future.

In January 1910 after a winter of heavy rains, the Seine flooded outlying areas. Slowly the Seine rose between the stone and mortar quays in the midst of Paris, creeping higher until it flooded the streets. Beneath the city, the sewer system had already let the freezing waters in, filling basements. The waters rose inexorably, forcing Parisians to evacuate their homes and shops, darkening the City of Light. What happened in the following days and weeks of devastation and clean-up is the subject of Jeffrey H. Jackson’s Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910.

Through anecdotal evidence, newspaper and magazine articles and memoirs, Jackson details the lives of Parisians and the failure of French engineers and architects to protect the city from the Seine’s historically devastating floods. He provides a well-balanced commentary on what city officials did right and wrong and illuminates a dark time in Parisian history.

Carefully positioned black and white photographs illustrate citizens and officials working together to rescue and provide transportation throughout the city as Parisians continued to go to work, shop for food and move through their daily lives. From the halls of government to the streets overwhelmed by nature’s ravages, Paris Under Water is a balanced account of administrative successes and failures.

Jackson follows the historical data by contrasting the social and governmental actions with more recent natural disasters like the 1937 Louisville, Kentucky flood and the 1997 Red River flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota when, like in Paris, citizens from all strata of society came together in a “democracy of distress.”

The 1910 flood brought out the worst and best in the city’s inhabitants. There was rampant looting and price gouging (the cost of a loaf of bread quadrupled), but people opened their homes and hearts to care for their neighbors who had lost everything. Jackson describes not only the city’s infrastructure but also the human infrastructure. He points to the failure in New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina when “…the divisions of race and class in New Orleans were still so severe that they added greatly to the suffering.”

Paris Under Water is not only timely but prophetic. Jackson’s observations are right on target. He blends anecdotal and archival information with simple, direct prose. It is a delight to read, and his observations seem reasonable and objective. I thoroughly enjoyed the historical context and the humanity Jackson presents through his journey into the past.


Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell