Paris is waiting anxiously as a swollen river Seine rises towards the point where it might flood the city and cause widespread disruption.
Officially, the river – now a menacingly broad band of muddy water – should peak at a safe height of six metres by this evening. Town hall officials admitted, however, that they had consistently underestimated the speed and extent of the river’s rise over the last three days.
One riverside Métro station, Saint-Michel, near Notre-Dame Cathedral, was closed this morning when water started to leak through the walls.
If the river passes the six-metre mark, after a week of torrential rain in northern France, other riverside buildings and streets could be threatened. In 1910, when large parts of the French capital were flooded for six weeks, the river Seine reached a height of 8.6 metres.
Two of the world’s greatest art museums, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, standing on either side of the bank of the river in central Paris, were closed “for precautionary reasons” today. Around 250,000 “reserve” works of art and historic objects in the Louvre’s underground store rooms were being hastily moved to the upper floors.
Around 30,000 artworks on the ground floor and in the basement of the Musée d’Orsay were also being relocated. Museum officials said there was no reason to believe that the Seine would be severely affected, but that 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-year-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 also died in other incidents in recent days.
The Paris town hall has 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.”
“Then the river rose by 50 centimetres a day. Between Tuesday midnight and Thursday midnight, the Seine rose by two metres.”
Hydrologists are still predicting confidently, however, that the level of the river will peak by tonight at around six metres. For the water to start spilling over the high Seine quays and flooding streets and the Metro system, it has to reach around 7 metres.
Existing flooding, mostly of the lower quays and riverside roads, has already disrupted planning for the Euro 2016 football championships which start in Paris in a week. A dozen “bungalows” built on the riverside near the Eiffel Tower to house events linked to the championship have been inundated and seriously damaged.