If we take the outcome of Hurricane Katrina as our typical civic response to disaster, we are moving backward. Almost a hundred years ago, the city of Paris -- crowded, cluttered, complicated and beautiful -- had been similarly struck down, submerged by a relentless flood. In 1910, the Seine overflowed its banks and entire neighborhoods were submerged in the wettest January then on record.
Unlike New Orleans, instead of one major shelter, at least 10 civic institutions sheltered the populace, grand doors were flung open and people continued to arrive at work, by rowboat if they had to. This wasn't French gallantry, and it wasn't that people were made of different stuff then. According to Jeffrey H. Jackson, author of the surprisingly gripping "Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910" (Palgrave Macmillan, 262 pages, $27), the city itself was like a human body, and in times of crisis, it was doctored by a team of civic caretakers who knew their patient intimately. Mistakes were made, certainly, but this document of a response to an urban catastrophe is still inspiring and instructive.
The central character in Jackson's account is Paris herself, but around the city scramble a group of councilors and commissioners, police chiefs and prefects who responded quickly to the needs of Paris and its citizens in the midst of an unexpected catastrophe.
Paris as we know it, the city of boulevards and parks, is largely a result of one civic planner's vision. Prefect Georges Eugene Haussman created the Paris we think of today, the "mansard roofs and Beaux Arts decorations ... widened boulevards ... plazas and squares" that the mind's eye summons at the sound of its name. When the water began rising, up to the chest of the great statue of the Zouave soldiers that seemed to guard the city, and further, up to the third floors of residential buildings, all these glittering treasures were on the verge of being lost.
Paris, like New Orleans, is basically a bowl, and the bowl was filling.
What came next is a testament to the combination of civic planning and organic soul that makes a city a city. The Parliament kept meeting, even if the politicians had to travel by rowboat. Train stations, opera houses, hospitals and cathedrals were opened to the public, and thousands were able to take shelter. Looters were routed by both government and neighborhood militias, and order -- a loud, argumentative, opinionated order, of course -- was maintained.
Jackson's deft book takes the reader from the slow, inevitable rise of the waters, through the disaster, and into the aftermath, where the city really showed its grit. He moves from the apt details -- like people fishing wine casks out of the Seine -- to the larger historical picture with ease and fluidity.
In the end, "Paris Under Water" is a fascinating character study, with Paris itself as the protagonist. We could learn from this book not only different ways to deal with disasters, but what a city really is, and should be.
Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."