The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Paris looked like the last time floods were this bad

Paris is in the grips of the worst flooding in a century. Days of torrential rain have led to water-clogged streets and power outages. Museums and businesses have shuttered. In some places in the French capital, the Seine has burst its banks.

French daily Le Monde tweeted the dramatic GIF above Friday, comparing the rising waters of the river at their current height to an image of the same scene in 1910, when a quarter of Paris's buildings were flooded and vast sections of the city were under water.

As you can see above, the Pont Saint-Michel is not in as dire straits now as it was more than a century ago. But that's little comfort. The Great Flood of 1910 left the French capital underwater for some two months between January and March. Tens of thousands of Parisians were forced to evacuate. Some 13 deaths by drowning were recorded by city officials; the damage caused by the waters reached what would now be an estimated $1.5 billion.

At the time, the flood sparked something of a media bonanza — the French press, fledgling newsreel agencies and foreign correspondents from elsewhere in Europe and the United States descended on Paris to behold its misfortune. The 1910 floods were quickly memorialized as the worst Paris had seen since 1658.

The flooding, to some, recalled almost idyllic scenes from Venice. A journalist for the British Daily Mail described one flooded square as "a Dead Sea." Another correspondent, writing for the Daily Telegraph, described his own bleak experience meandering through the city's waterlogged lanes: "We shuffled along, looking blankly at what … was now a sheet of filthy, brown, smelling water, in which an omnibus office, a newspaper kiosk all askew, and two or three drunken lamp-posts were islands … hotels, cafés, shops — all empty and dead."

Garbage processing plants shut down and sewers clogged with their runoff. Hordes of rats emerged amid the muck. The French author and art critic Octave Mirabeau wrote to his friend, the painter Charles Monet, of a spectacle "of desolation and terror." He concluded bleakly: "I am beginning to believe it is the end of the world."

It wasn't. Still, it took months for Paris — then one of the world's most advanced metropolitan centers — to recover. Marcel Proust, the novelist, complained about the noisy repairs and the stench of disinfectant that permeated the air.