The Louvre Enacts Art Evacuation Plan as Historic Flooding Hits Paris

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Normally open to the public every day except for Tuesday, the Louvre, the world's largest museums, is "exceptionally closed" as officials relocate vulnerable art and artifacts to higher ground. . (Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

Just several days ago, French street artist JR made the iconic glass pyramid at Musée du Louvre in Paris “disappear” by way of a nifty optical illusion that will be on display through the end of this month.

In an unexpected turn of events that renders JR’s ephemeral installation even more surreal, patrons have also disappeared from the Louvre’s normally bustling galleries while the museum battens down the hatches and relocates a huge cache of artwork to higher ground as a safeguard against flooding that has overtaken much of Paris.

Following days of relentless rainfall that has already devastated large swaths of Western Europe, a swollen River Seine, the fabled waterway that cuts through the heart of Paris, has burst its banks, rising well over 18 feet above its normal level. As the New York Times reports, this is the highest level the normally equable Seine has reached since 1982.

Artist JR's installation "hides" I.M. Pei's iconic glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris.
A month-long art installation that 'hides' I.M. Pei's pyramidal entrance pavilion makes the fact that the Louvre is closed due to potential flooding even more disorienting. (Photo: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)

Many Parisians worry that things will get worse before they get better given that flood levels have yet to peak and more rain in the forecast. Some fear that the situation could prove to be on par with the Great Paris Flood of 1910, an event that although non-fatal, left huge chunks of the city underwater for over a month.

While occasional flooding along the Seine isn’t unprecedented following heavy downpours, it’s not everyday that major streets are deluged, service on railway lines is suspended, riverboats are barred from navigating and one of the world’s most highly trafficked museums (not to mention a top Parisian tourist attraction, second only to the Eiffel Tower) is forced to close its doors to the “Mona Lisa”-craving public.

To be clear, floodwaters have not yet infiltrated the Louvre, which is located on the traditionally more hoity-toity — and more touristy — Right Bank of the Seine. But as a precautionary emergency measure, museum curators are calmly and carefully packing and transporting artworks kept in reserve within the massive complex’s underground storerooms and other flood-prone galleries to higher ground.

Artworks stored on the lower levels of the Louvre are being packed up and moved to higher ground as flooding in Paris worsens.
Evacuated antiquities: Ancient Greek and Roman artifacts are packed up and relocated within the Louvre as part of an emergency flood protection plan. (Photo: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)
Artworks stored on the lower levels of the Louvre are being packed up and moved to higher ground as flooding in Paris worsens.
While a monumental effort, the relocation of thousands of pieces of invaluable art is an event that officials at the Louvre had prepared for. (Photo: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)

An estimated 150,000 pieces of priceless art and artifacts are impacted, not including paintings and sculptures on display in lower-level public galleries that also must be evacuated within 72 hours.

Talk about grace under pressure.

Louvre officials anticipate reopening the museum, the largest in the world, on June 7.

And in case you wondering: No, an obscure and not-at-all-influential da Vinci portrait of a grinning Florentine gal is not impacted, although the Louvre’s prized galleries of the Department of Islamic Art must be relocated as do a sizable collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities.

Artworks stored on the lower levels of the Louvre are being packed up and moved to higher ground as flooding in Paris worsens.
A world-class museum on the move: the Louvre's Flood Risk Protection Plan kicks into action when levels on the River Seine reach the 5.08 meter (roughly 17-foot) mark. (Photo: Geoffroy van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images)

While the floodwater-prompted evacuation at the Louvre is, as mentioned, unprecedented, the museum is far from unprepared. The Louvre established a 72-hour emergency flood protection plan in 2002 and regularly holds drills. In fact, a day-long practice drill of the so-called Flood Risk Prevention Plan (FRPP) was carried out in the subterranean Islamic art galleries this past March. The Louvre's underground storage rooms are also equipped with state-of-the-art flood pumps and waterproof doors, but museum officials are obviously playing it safe by getting everything out.

Similarly, the Musée d'Orsay, another top Parisian cultural institution located across the river from the Louvre on the Left Bank, has closed to the public as a crisis management team transports vulnerable assets to the museum's upper floors as part of a pre-established emergency contingency plan. Located within a sprawling former railway station built in the late 19th century, Musée d'Orsay is famed for its collection of Impressionist and Post-impressionist paintings including works by Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Degas and most notably, Gauguin.

The Musée d'Orsay website has posted an alert that it will be closed “at least” until June 8.

As the rain-swollen River Seine floods its banks, many Paris institutions including the Louvre, are forced to shutter their doors.
As of now, the Eiffel Tower is still open for business, although areas surrounding the Parisian landmark have been submerged and are closed to the public until the floodwaters recede. (Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

The Grand Palais and a small handful of other Parisian cultural attractions have also closed their doors to visitors, with more expected to follow as the situation develops. Paris’ riverside parks and promenades — not to mention these super-cool summertime pop-up plages — have been completely submerged by floodwaters. What’s more, some of the city's scenic Seine-crossing bridges are closed to foot and vehicular traffic. As for the bridges that do remain open, tourists and locals have descended on them en masse to witness the rapidly rising Seine first-hand.

Some (ill-advised) Parisians have even taken to swimming in the streets as the French government mulls relocating the presidency and sensitive governmental entities until the flooding subsides.

While no residents have been evacuated within Paris city limits as of publication, that’s not the case in flood-impacted burgs outside of Paris where mandatory evacuations are underway. Referring to the situation unfolding across France as a “natural disaster,” French President Francois Hollande declared a state of emergency on Thursday..

The Rivers Seine rises precariously high at Pont de l'Alma in Paris.
The Zouave statue at Pont de l'Alma has long been used to track water levels during flooding events on the Seine. During the Great Flood of Paris in 1910, the water reached his shoulders. (Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

The slow-moving, havoc-wreaking storm system has impacted several other European countries, particularly Belgium and Germany. Ten people have been reported dead in the latter country since the torrential rains first began, many of them swept away by floodwaters.

The extreme rain that has left a huge swath of Europe waterlogged and reeling, not surprisingly, has been linked to climate change

“Heavy rains? Massive flooding? Get used to it: with climate change, this is the new normal,” Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University explains to the Associated Press.

Oppenheimer’s belief that heavier-than-normal rain is caused by a rapidly changing climate echoes the sentiments of other leading scientists, many of whom have also been closely watching the devastating floods that have rocked Texas in recent days.

“A warmer atmosphere can hold more water. And the consequences can be traumatic, as individuals, businesses, and communities struggle to manage very heavy rains,” adds leading climate scientist Chris Field.

In a somewhat cruel (crue being the French word for flood) twist, Paris, host city of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), has served as an aggressive forebear in the fight to curtail activities associated with global warming. Earlier this week, officials announced that, come July, older and more polluting cars manufactured before 1997 will be banned from the streets of Paris on weekdays as part of an ongoing effort to combat sky-high air pollution levels in the city.

As of now, the Euro 2016 football tournament — an énorme sporting event, mind you — is still slated to kick off in Paris on June 10.