RUE-DE-SEINE

I don’t know what the writer of the Book of Genesis had in mind when he composed that ninth verse, but he provided an image that comes to my mind whenever I hear that the Passaic River has gone over its banks and once again swamped the homes of people who persist in living in its path.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered in one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so.

In other words, it took a command from God to get water to relinquish its superiority over earth, and the way I see it, water has never fully obeyed.

One example of the element asserting itself — just because it can — is described in “Paris Under Water” by  Jeffery M. Jackson, an account of a flood in January 1910 that wrecked a large part of the city and some of its suburbs.

Marker indicates where the Seine crested, 20 feet above normal, on January 28, 1910.

Jackson, who is a history professor, explains that there was a complex of causes for this disaster. These included an unusually high amount of precipitation between June of 1909 and January of 1910 and relatively mild temperatures in western Europe that winter. In addition, Jackson writes, excessive deforestation upstream of Paris may have contributed to the deluge.

He also explains that late in the 19th century Paris had remade itself into a modern city, complete with an electric subway – the Metropolitan – and greatly expanded sewerage facilities. These very improvements, Jackson says, helped to create the calamity in 1910, because water pouring out of the river and bubbling up from the saturated ground had multiple conduits to carry it where it otherwise might not have gone — and certainly not so swiftly.

One citizen carries another through the flood water.

The flood brought with it all the problems of property loss, unemployment, and contamination that usually accompany such events, and the looting and profiteering as well.

Still, one of the most interesting and uplifting aspects of this book is Jackson’s account of how individuals and institutions rose to the challenge and helped the city and each other survive the flood.

Also engrossing is the author’s chronicle of the activities of Prefect of Police Louis Lepine, whose title described only a part of his responsibility, which included public health. Lepine, who had introduced scientific police techniques to Paris, was a dynamo during the flood, seldom resting as he personally oversaw the management of the city’s response to the crisis.

More recent events, such as our own Hurricane Katrina, have a way of dulling or even snuffing out our collective memory of natural disasters. This one, which in Jackson’s estimation has some lessons for our  own time, is worth recalling.

One of the many postcards produced and sold during and after the disaster shows a scene that was repeated in many places in Paris -- citizens gingerly making their way over wooden walkways that were hastily constructed as the city fought back against the flood.