As I stepped over yet another kerbside gushing with water from an overflowing drain, on an otherwise bone-dry pavement, I started to wonder how long it would be before the already bulging River Seine would reach its peak – over the last few days it has risen to nearly six metres above its usual depth and isn’t expected to recede until tomorrow.
When I arrived in Paris last Wednesday, there had been talk of the River Seine flooding for a few days, with authorities and locals all hoping the levels would fall before it would inundate the walls that contain it as it flows through the centre of the city. As the last few days have gone on, friends from home and across France have been messaging me saying ‘Are your feet dry?’ and, as I went around the city researching my articles, more drains spewed water out into the gutters, despite the skies above remaining dry.
Rainfall in previous weeks has meant the water level has crept higher and higher, causing the usually busy river to fall eerily silent. With the water rising under the arches of the various bridges, there is little room to pass under and the tourist boats such as the Bateaux Mouches have ceased operation. On the banks of the Seine, close to the Louvre, I spotted numerous sand bags piled up in preparation for an inundation, while the paths that usually lead down from the road to the footpaths alongside the river have been taped off.
By Sunday 28 January, crowds of people had gathered alongside the river to survey its levels, the murky beige water flowing much faster and stronger than usual. Trees that mark the footpaths along the river are half submerged and the little park at the point of the Île de la Cité island near the Pont Neuf is indistinguishable, apart from the trees poking out in a line.
Annalee Beverly, a Canadian ex-pat who lives part-time in Paris, told me: “Usually we picnic in that park in the summer, but you can’t even see it now. Yesterday you could just about see the top of the gatepost above the water, but you can’t even see that today. It’s completely gone!” We walked together along the river towards Saint-Germain and she pointed out the houseboats moored along the river. “The weirdest thing is that you can now see the boats from the street. Usually they’d be way below the level of the walls, but now they’re up above and you can see straight into them from down the street.”
Usually those living on them would step out of their boats via a short pontoon onto the riverside path, yet now the paths are underwater, many have had to build a variety of pontoons and ladders to climb out over the wall – all of it looking pretty precarious. As I spied a wooden chair speeding past on the water, I shuddered at the thought of anyone falling in; I doubt they would stand a chance with the current being so strong. Even the boats themselves had pulled their mooring ropes taught. If the ropes failed, it would be minutes before the boats would crash into the bridges’ low arches.
As I hustled for space between the crowds to see the water, I asked Annalee – who has lived on and off in Paris for 15 years – if the crowds are usual on a Sunday along the river. “No, it’s usually pretty quiet on a Sunday – everyone has come down to have a look. I’ve never seen the river like this before.”
As the daylight faded, I entered the Saint-Michel Metro station to head back to my hotel and with both the regional railway RER lines B and C closed had to board a Metro line instead. Half the steps down to the entry barriers had sand bags piled on them, and water dripped from the ceiling. Being just a few metres from the river, I started to feel a bit uncomfortable about being in an underground tunnel, and was glad to be heading to one of the city’s highest points – Pigalle. But even there, the drains gushed with water.