Incredible, that’s all I can say, muttered Catherine, a publishing editor, as she stared dumbfounded at the river water that had swallowed up the busy road running along the banks of the Seine near her Paris apartment.
Roads and picturesque cobbled walkways in the French capital have disappeared, submerged by a vast expanse of brown river water carrying an unusual assortment of debris including logs, big wooden planks and a metal sign from a boat-club in its angry, swirling current.
The rain-swollen Seine, which has spilled over on to embankments in many places in Paris, peaked at 6.07 metres on Friday night, its highest level in more than 30 years.
Rising water lapped at the tops of traffic lights and trees, road signs for speed cameras poked out above the water, and a ticket office for the city’s river bus, Batobus, was submerged almost up to its roof.
Large crowds, including awestruck local children with their parents, gathered along bridges to peer at this ominous but fascinating river-swell, which has transformed the Paris landscape. It was eerily quiet. All water traffic on a river normally jammed with tourist cruises, barges and cargo was suspended because there was no room for boats to fit under bridges. Only the dinghies of the river police were occasionally sighted.
While the river is not expected to rise high enough to submerge Paris’s city centre, residents living near the Seine were urged to clear their basements. Two gyms were opened to accommodate homeless people who would normally find shelter on barges in the city.
The fast, churning current hinted at the difficulties and misery the swollen river has left in its wake.
More than 20,000 people have been evacuated in France since the weekend and around 19,000 homes were without power on Friday. At least two people have been killed in flooding across the country, including a man on horseback who died on Thursday after being swept away by a swollen river in Evry-Gregy-sur-Yerre.
The body of an 86-year-old woman was found in her flooded house in Souppes-sur-Loing in central France, where some towns have been hit by the worst flooding in more than 100 years.
The French environment minister, Ségolène Royal, said she feared more bodies would be found as waters receded in villages in central France.
“There’s something terrifying about it,” said Martine Lyon, 80, a photographer who had lived in Paris for 50 years. She stood on the Île Saint-Louis, the island in the middle of the Seine in Paris, peering at the swirling water. “There’s a sadness, something troubling about this,” Lyon said. “The sky is so grey and terrible, trains aren’t running due to strikes, the river is so high, it seems like such a cumulation of things.”
The spectre of Paris’s great flood of 1910, when the river poured into tunnels, sewers and drains, forcing Parisians to evacuate their homes and use makeshift footbridges, still looms large in the city’s narrative. In 1910, the river swelling reached more than eight metres, but, although those heights would not be reached now, to witness the Seine this high in Paris is something that is very rare to see in a lifetime.
Bernard Oriol, a retired engineer, was among crowds looking at the rushing river water near Notre Dame cathedral. “It’s spectacular and we might never see it like this again,” he said. “It has changed the landscape. You never see water this close to Notre Dame.”
He also felt he’d never seen so many tourists as hundreds crammed into the square opposite Notre Dame. “With the cruise boats all cancelled, everyone is on tourist buses or queuing for Notre Dame to get out of the rain,” he said.
On the quay at Saint-Michel, a sign saying the commuter station was closed because of flood risk was being photographed by tourists. The RER C train line which normally carries 500,000 passengers a day along the banks of the Seine and out towards Versailles has been closed. Similarly, the Saint-Michel Métro station had shut after water began to seep in at various places.
The Louvre, the world’s most visited museum, which sits on the river bank, closed so staff could remove priceless artworks from its underground reserves as a precaution against flood damage. The Musée d’Orsay, which holds the world’s greatest collection of impressionist masterpieces, on the opposite bank of the Seine, will stay closed until Tuesday to move artworks from its lowest floor.
The national library closed its François Mitterrand site on the riverbank as a precaution and staff at the French parliament hastily removed archives from its basement on the edge of the river.
Paris’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, whose staff have held crisis meetings, said there was no risk to the population but warned it would take time for the water levels to recede.
John and Wendy Eyre, retired lawyers from Adelaide in Australia, had come to the river from their holiday rental apartment to watch the water levels rising. Standing in the drizzle on the Louis Philippe bridge near Paris’s city hall, Wendy said: “It’s really something. We didn’t expect flooding on the Seine.”
The Eyres, who decided not to cancel their long planned trip after the Paris attacks in November, had lost money when rail strikes disrupted their journey from Lyon to Paris last week. They found themselves standing on one of the most romantic riverscapes in the world, watching logs floating past in the rain. “You just have to get on with enjoying your holiday,” they said.