When Paris was lost in the flood

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 11:45pm

A trip through the sewers of Paris uncovered something even more horrific for author and professor Jeffrey H. Jackson.

Though he’d written extensively about French history and culture for many years, Jackson, a Rhodes College associate professor of history, didn’t really know the full story of the great Paris Flood of 1910.

Then during a side trip through, of all things, the city’s sewers, he happened upon some photographs that triggered his interest in finding out more about a horrific event still not as widely known as many other natural disasters.

Jackson’s new book Paris Under Water: How The City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910 (Palgrave MacMillan), which he’ll be discussing in separate events Thursday — at Vanderbilt University Peabody Library's Fireside Reading Room (4 p.m.) and Davis-Kidd Booksellers (7 p.m.) — includes a host of previously unpublished, rare photographs and more details about the disaster.

“One reason why the Paris Flood has been under-covered in terms of a historic event is that World War I occurred only four years later, and that was such a monumental happening in terms of both France and Europe that it tended to overshadow everything that came before it,” Jackson said. “Yet there were many photographs of the flood and that was something that made it easier to really picture the damage and the impact.

“For me the most important thing about the flood was that it brought together people in Paris at a time when the city was wracked with all types of disputes and class conflict. People banded together in a way that seemed impossible given what had happened before. It just shows how in a time of natural disaster, goodwill and cooperation can thrive, even in the worse situations.”

Jackson’s book describes how flooding shut down the city, cut off contact to the outside world and stranded people in isolated enclaves and communities. It also caused extensive damage throughout the classic city, and forced both members of the elite and the poor to work together simply to survive.

The author also says that the disaster reshaped the character of the nation as a whole, with many survivors celebrating a national heritage for the first time rather than simply touting themselves citizens of a particular town or village.

Jackson, the author of other books, including Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris and Music and History: Bridging the Disciplines, mixes eyewitness testimony, an analysis of environmental damage (he’s also director of Rhodes’ Environmental Studies Program), historical examination and political commentary to tell a moving tale about an incident that many current French citizens remain unaware even happened.

“The response I got throughout France during my research was one of thanks and support,” Jackson continued. “There are generations there who barely know what happened, or if they’ve heard about it only know bits and pieces. So the translators I worked with and other authorities were glad to share their information and happy that someone was curious about this event and wanted to provide an accurate account of it.”

While careful about making applications between the Paris flood and other events, he does see one key related chord in other disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the recent earthquake in Haiti.

“The one thing that I see as a consistent thread is that people do pull together in times of need and disaster,” Jackson concluded. “There’s no question about the suffering and devastation that occurred during the 1910 flood and certainly we all saw what happened with Katrina and is happening now in Haiti. But there’s also instances in all three situations where people put aside their differences and worked together to help those suffering and also try to rebuild.

“I think you’re seeing some of that now in Haiti, even as there are many other ugly and horrible things going on as well. However I think the lesson that’s applicable is that tragedies and natural disasters unite people in unexpected and inspirational ways, even in the face of tragedy and misery.”



What: Author and historian Jeffrey H. Jackson reads from and signs copies of his new book Paris Under Water: How The City of Light Survived The Great Flood of 1910
When: 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Peabody Library, Fireside Reading Room, Vanderbilt University, 121 21st Ave. S., (4 p.m.) Davis-Kidd Booksellers, 2121 Green Hills Village Drive (7 p.m.)
Cost: Both free and open to the public
Info: 327-8095 (4 p.m.), 385-2645 (7 p.m.)