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Louvre relocates 250,000 priceless artworks amid rising Paris floodwaters

The Louvre and Orsay museums in Paris moved scores of art works and precious artifacts to safety and soldiers evacuated residents from some of the capital's outlying suburbs as the swollen River Seine hit its highest level in 30 years.

Flooding caused by nearly a week of heavy rain across a swath of Europe leaves 16 dead

Paris floods force officials to move precious art to higher ground 0:58

The Louvre and Orsay museums in Paris moved scores of artworks and precious artifacts to safety and soldiers evacuated residents from some of the capital's outlying suburbs as the swollen river Seine hit its highest level in 30 years.

France's environment minister, Ségolène Royal, said the Seine had breached six metres in central Paris, submerging roads running along the river, swamping small businesses on quaysides and forcing the closure of an underground commuter line.

The worst affected areas lie to the south of the capital. In Villeneuve Saint Georges, located near Paris's Orly airport, soldiers and Red Cross volunteers helped stranded residents as floodwaters rose above knee level. In nearby Corbeil Essones, locals kayaked along streets littered with abandoned cars.

The surging currents of the Seine have become a tourist attraction itself.

Scores of visitors and residents have gathered on the Mirabeau Bridge in western Paris to take pictures of the river with the Eiffel Tower in the background.

A replica of the Statue of Liberty on the Ile aux Cygnes island is surrounded by water and many inhabitants of the neighbouring 16th district came to the riverbanks to show the highly unusual flood to their children.

Roughly 250,000 pieces of art have been moved from basement storage at the Louvre in Paris to protect them from flooding. (John Schults/Reuters)

Stacked in corridors

"It's a bit frightening, everything that's happening," said one woman from Marseille who identified herself only as Odile. "Not long ago they ran a flood simulation, how to evacuate museums, residents. And now it's happening for real."

The heavy flooding of the past week could cost French insurance companies some 600 million euros ($880 million Cdn) or more, industry association AFA said.

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 museum said it had not taken such precautions in its modern history — since its 1993 renovation at the very least.

Workers stacked dozens of boxes marked fragile and containing valuable statues, vases and artworks.

Crates could be seen stacked in corridors, overlooked by classical marble statues.

"For the museums, even if fortunately there isn't any flooding of storerooms as of today, there is an automatic process above five and a half metres to move works in the deepest storerooms higher," Bruno Julliard, Paris's deputy mayor, told France Inter radio.

The Louvre will stay closed through Tuesday and the Orsay Museum, known for its impressionist art, will be closed through the weekend.

Authorities also shut down the national library and the Grand Palais, Paris's striking glass-and-steel topped exhibition centre.

As floodwaters rise in Paris, the Louvre and Orsay museums will be closed through the weekend. (John Schults/Reuters)

Weeks to recede?

Even as the Seine flooded higher, its remained well below the record high of 8.6 metres reached in 1910, when thousands of Parisians had to flee flooded low-lying areas of the city.

Officials said the river could peak at six and a half metres later on Friday, and warned floodwaters could take several weeks to recede after the wettest May in France for 100 years.

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

"What's going to be even more painful for the families who have lost their homes, the heads of companies who have lost their businesses, the employees who will be unable to go to work, is that the drop in the water level will be very slow," Royal said.

The retreating waters could reveal further victims, she added.

In Evry-Gregy-sur-Yerre, a man on horseback drowned on Thursday, becoming the first fatality from the flooding caused by days of unusually torrential rain.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls told journalists the death of a woman on Wednesday was not linked to the flooding, as earlier thought. 

The Zouave statue at the Pont de l'Alma on the Seine River is considered an indicator of the level of the Seine; when his feet are under water, emergency flood precautions are taken. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

With files from The Associated Press