On January 28, 1910, the Seine reached its highest point in the midst of the worst flooding the city had seen in over 250 years. Streets filled with water, thousands evacuated their homes for drier ground or emergency shelters. Fears of disease and looting ran through the city. Once the electricity and much of the city’s gas supply stopped, the City of Light turned dark for days.
Just as the water reached its peak, a dramatic rescue unfolded at one of the city’s newest hospitals, the Hôpital Boucicaut. During the early morning hours of January 28, the hospital’s director appealed for emergency help as he prepared several hundred patients for evacuation.
Muddy water was seeping into the wards, both from the river and from the sewers. Muck now covered this once sterile space, filling it with a horrible stink. One nurse at the scene reported that the rising water inside the wards was filled with human excrement from the bed-ridden patients.
As the sun rose, rescuers hastily constructed a wooden walkway to carry patients from a side door to where the water was shallow. Horse-drawn ambulances pulled up to the end of the walkway one by one, followed by carts from the army and delivery wagons citizens donated to the effort. The icy water slapped against the horses’ chests and onto their backs. Doctors and nurses wrapped the sick and dying patients in blankets to shield them from the cold.
A pair of rescuers shifted each bed-ridden patient to a cot with handles on both ends, and then shuffled carefully across the walkway to the rain-soaked wagons already taking on water. Few of the vehicles had any covering to protect the sick on their journey to safety. Coal dust or plaster, left behind from their everyday uses, coated many of these improvised ambulances. Under the great stress of the moment, one agitated horse threw its driver clear, knocking him unconscious.
Around Paris, doctors improvised new hospital facilities. One nurse claimed that she did not sleep for sixty hours straight at the height of the disaster. Even if they were not directly plagued by water, hospitals had to do without a clean linens once the central laundry facility for the Parisian hospital system flooded. The city was so interconnected, most dry neighborhoods still suffered the consequences of the flood.