An angry-looking river Seine has risen to its highest level for decades in Paris, forcing the closure of metro stations, museums and libraries.
The usually placid river turned into a broad, fast-flowing torrent of muddy water on Friday, but was forecast to peak just short of the level which would flood streets and the underground railway system.
Town hall officials admitted, however, that they had consistently underestimated the speed and extent of the rise of the river over the last three days.
Two Metro stations close to the river bank were closed after water started to leak though the walls. The Louvre and Orsay art museums, the Grand Palais exhibition hall and two sites of the national library were closed protectively.
Severe flooding in the western suburbs of the French capital is feared on Saturday after a several days of torrential rain in northern and central France. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, warned after a crisis meeting that the Seine might remain dangerously swollen for more than a week but played down the possibility of serious flooding in the city itself. Days of heavy rain have led to a swathe of flooding across Europe, leading to a number of deaths.
The Euro 2016 international football tournament begins in Paris next Friday. Temporary buildings constructed beside the Seine near the Eiffel Tower to host events connected to the tournament have been under a metre of water.
The environment ministry predicted that the Seine would peak at 6.5 metres during the night – its highest level since 1951. Earlier in the day, officials had predicted a peak of 6 metres and then 6.2 metres.
A 6.5 metre flood level is just below the point when water might start to cascade into streets and the Metro system. In 1910, when large parts of the French capital were flooded for six weeks, the river Seine reached a height of 8.6 metres.
The Paris town hall admitted that the speed in the rise of the Seine had defied official forecasts. “We have been taken by surprise,” said Matthieu Clouzeau, the city’s director of prevention and protection. “The rise in water levels has been twice as fast as our planning models anticipated, based on statistics from 1910.”
The usually quiet river charged between its masonry banks yesterday carrying large pieces of wood and other debris from the serious flooding upstream. In many places the water almost filled the arches of the city’s bridges.
Barges moored by the lower quays to house cafés and restaurants were cut off in the middle of the swollen river. Beside a barge-restaurant near the national assembly, a sign advertising “menu and wine list” jutted from the water at a crazy angle.
Two of the world’s greatest art museums, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, standing on either bank of the river in central Paris, were closed “for precautionary reasons”. Around 250,000 “reserve” works of art and historic objects in the Louvre’s underground store-rooms were hastily moved to the upper floors.
Around 30,000 art works on the ground floor and in the basement of the Musée d’Orsay were also being moved. Museum officials said there was no reason to believe that the Seine would come visiting but the stored works were being moved just in case.
It will take from three to four days to clear the underground reserves to upper floors usually open to the public. The Mona Lisa, on the first floor of the Louvre, will not get her feet wet but she might have some unusual companions over the next few days.
The severe flooding of towns and roads to the east and south of Paris claimed a new victim overnight. A 74 years old man fell from his horse while fording floodwater at Evry-Gregy-sur-Yerre, southeast of Paris.
His body was recovered later. His horse made its own way to safety. An elderly woman and a toddler have died in other incidents in recent days. Rainfall in the month of May has been two and a half times its normal level.
Elsewhere in Europe, authorities were counting the cost of the floods. 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. In Belgium, rescue workers found the body of a beekeeper who was swept away by rising waters while trying to protect his hives in the village of Harsin.
In eastern Romania, two people died and 200 people were evacuated from their homes as floods swept the area.
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