Jun 3, 2016 6:59 PM

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

The Associated Press

PARIS (AP) The swollen Seine River kept rising 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 shut down as the city braced for evacuations.

The Seine was expected to peak in Paris early Saturday at about 5 meters (16 feet, 3 inches) above normal. Authorities shut the Louvre museum, the national library, the Orsay museum and the Grand Palais, Paris' striking glass-and-steel topped exhibition center.

"We evaluate the situation for all the (cultural) buildings nearly hour-by-hour," said Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay, 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 some 250,000 artworks from basement storage areas at risk of flooding to safer areas upstairs. The Louvre will stay closed through Tuesday and the Orsay Museum, known for its impressionist art, closed through the weekend.

Nearly a week of heavy rain has led to serious flooding across a swathe of Europe, leaving 16 people dead and others missing.

Although the rain has tapered off in some areas, floodwaters are still climbing and could take weeks to clear and authorities urged vigilance. 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 Friday as the river crept higher, and authorities evacuated a campground in the Bois de Boulogne park on the western edge of the city.

French authorities activated preliminary plans to transfer the French presidency and other sensitive sites to secure places in case of flooding. The SGDSN security agency says the National Assembly, or lower house of Parliament, and the Foreign Ministry were at greater risk.

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 but most were understanding.

"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.

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 in the town of Simbach am Inn and a 72-year-old man died of a heart attack after being rescued from a raging stream in the village of Triftern, bringing the country's death toll from recent flooding to 11.

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 ripped from his bicycle by a torrent of water in the eastern village of Ruginesti.

In Belgium, rescue workers found the body of a beekeeper 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 some 450 million euros ($500 million) in damage in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg alone.

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

French energy company Enedis said more than 20,000 customers were without power to the east and south of Paris because of flooding.

Paris measures Seine water levels using an unusual method called the Austerlitz scale, which compares the surface level with an underwater sensor at the Austerlitz Bridge, said regional environment director Jerome Goellner.

In normal times, the river level is between 1 meter and 2 meters (3 feet, 3 inches to 6 feet) on the Austerlitz scale, he said. 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 so far has risen about 4.5 meters (15 feet) from its typical position following days of heavy rain. Goellner says it's not possible to put a precise time on when the peak is expected, but said Friday "we're near the maximum."

The Environment Ministry predicted the river would reach its highest level early Saturday and stay there for a few days.

Extreme rainfall, such as that hitting France, has increased worldwide and especially in Europe because of man-made climate change, four different scientists told The Associated Press on Friday. They said downpours like this are one of the clearest signals of global warming.

Record-breaking rainfall in Europe has increased 31 percent from 1980 to 2010, when compared to the previous 80 years, according to a 2015 Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research study.

"These increasing trends have already been measured and are now affecting every storm that forms, including recent storms in France," said Gerald Meehl, a climate scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research,

With leading Paris museums closed, the surging currents were a tourist attraction in themselves. Prakash Amritraj of India, a 42-year-old visiting 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 center. In India, we have the monsoon, but here! It's not supposed to happen!" he said.

While he sympathized with all those affected, he appreciated the flooding from a different perspective.

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


Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet, Alex Turnbull and Mstyslav Chernov in Paris, John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels, David Rising in Berlin, Seth Borenstein from Washington, D.C. and Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, contributed.


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