Seine up to highest level in 35 years, Paris landmarks shut

2016-06-03 19:26
A family visits the flooded banks of the River Seine near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. (Jerome Delay, AP)

A family visits the flooded banks of the River Seine near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. (Jerome Delay, AP)

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Paris - The swollen Seine River kept rising on Friday, spilling into Paris streets and forcing one landmark after another to shut down as it surged to its highest levels in nearly 35 years. Across the city, museums, parks and cemeteries were being closed as the city braced for possible evacuations.

The Seine was expected to peak in Paris sometime later on Friday at about 5m above normal. Authorities shut the Louvre museum, the national library, the Orsay museum and the Grand Palais, Paris' striking glass-and-steel topped exhibition centre.

"We evaluate the situation for all the [cultural] buildings nearly hour-by-hour," said Culture Minister Audrey Azouley, speaking to journalists outside the world-famous Louvre. "We don't know yet the evolution of the level of the Seine River in Paris."

At the Louvre, home to Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, curators were scrambling to move about 250 000 artworks from basement storage areas at risk of flooding to safer areas upstairs.

Nearly a week of heavy rain has led to serious flooding across a swathe of Europe, leaving 15 people dead and others missing.

Although the rain has tapered off in some areas, floodwaters are still climbing. Traffic in the French capital was snarled as flooding choked roads and several Paris railway stations shut down.

Basements and apartments in the capital's well-to-do 16th district began to flood on Friday afternoon as the river crept higher, and authorities were preparing possible evacuations in a park and islands on Paris' western edge.

In addition to the Louvre, the Orsay museum, home to a renowned collection of impressionist art on the left bank of the Seine, was also closed on Friday to prepare for possible flooding. The Grand Palais, which draws 2.5 million visitors a year, was also shut down.

The closures are highly unusual.

The Louvre said the museum had not taken such precautions in its modern history - since its 1993 renovation at the very least. Disappointed tourists were being turned away.

"I am really sorry, but we're closed today," one staffer told visitors. "We have to evacuate masterpieces from the basement."

Travel disruptions

The foul weather has added to the major travel disruptions France is already experiencing, after weeks of strikes and other industrial actions by workers upset over the government's proposed labour reforms. French rail company SNCF said the strikes had led to the cancellation of about 40% of the country's high-speed trains.

In addition, French energy company Enedis says that more than 20 000 customers are without power to the east and south of Paris because of flooding.

Outside the Louvre, tourists expressed understanding at the museum's closure.

"It's good that they are evacuating the paintings. It's a shame that we couldn't see them today, but it's right that they do these things," said Carlos Santiago, visiting from Mexico.

Paris is measuring river levels using an unusual method called the Austerlitz scale. It involves comparing the surface level with an underwater sensor slightly below the surface at the Austerlitz Bridge, said regional environment director Jerome Goellner.

In normal times, the river level is between 1m and 2m on the Austerlitz scale, he said, a system used out of historical habit so one flood could be compared to another. But a piece of trash trapped in the sensor led authorities to undercount the rise of the Seine earlier this week, he said.

The Seine has so far risen about 4.5m from its typical position following days of heavy rains. Goellner says it's not possible to put a precise time on the peak but "we're near the maximum".

With leading Paris museums closed, the surging currents are becoming a tourist attraction in themselves.

Prakash Amritraj of India, a 42-year-old visiting Paris with his wife and two children, took selfies on the Mirabeau Bridge in western Paris.

"I had never thought of possible floods in Paris city centre. In India, we have the monsoon, but here! It's not supposed to happen!" he said.

While he sympathised with all those affected, he was able to appreciate the flooding from a different perspective.

"It's kind of beautiful, in a way," he said.

Elsewhere in Europe

Elsewhere in Europe, authorities were counting the cost of the floods as they waded through muddy streets and waterlogged homes.

German authorities said the body of a 65-year-old man was found overnight in the town of Simbach am Inn, bringing the country's death toll over recent days to 10. France's Interior Ministry also reported the death of a 74-year-old man who fell from his horse and drowned in a river in the Seine-et-Marne region east of Paris, the second death in France.

In eastern Romania, two people died and 200 people were evacuated from their homes as floods swept the area, including one man who was ripped from his bicycle by a torrent of water in the eastern village of Ruginesti.

In Belgium, rescue workers found the body of a bee-keeper who was swept away by rising waters while trying to protect his hives in the village of Harsin.

The German Insurance Association estimates this week's flooding has caused about €450m in damage in the state of Baden-Württemberg alone.

Read more on:    france  |  weather

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