The Flood of the Century in Southwest France, 3-4 March 1930

Montauban - River Tarn. The marker on the building shows how high the river rose in March 1930
Montauban – River Tarn. The marker on the building shows how high the river rose in March 1930

On Saturday 1st March 1930, torrential rain began to fall on already saturated ground in Southwest France. Unseasonably high temperatures brought by southerly winds rapidly melted the thick mantle of snow that had fallen in late winter on the mountains. The River Tarn, fed by its swollen tributaries the Agout and the Tescou, began to rise on Sunday 2nd March, but no alarm was raised.

Montauban

1930 flood marker
1930 flood marker

By the night between the 3rd and 4th March, the Tarn had risen to 12 metres above its normal level in Montauban, and the centre of the town was devastated. The flood put the electricity generating station out of action. Houses on both banks collapsed as the floodwater surged through the darkened streets. Afterwards, it was said that the right bank looked as if it had been bombarded. A thick coating of red mud covered the town.

The result: 25 people killed, 1,092 houses destroyed, 4,200 hectares of streets flooded and 10,000 people homeless. The number of deaths could have been higher had it not been for the bravery of some Montalbanais. A young industrial worker, Adolphe Poult, is reputed to have saved 100 people from drowning by picking them up in his canoe. Exhausted by his efforts, he drowned when his canoe overturned, sadly as the flood was starting to abate.

Moissac

But worse was to come four hours later downstream in Moissac, just beyond the confluence of the Tarn and the Aveyron. The combined volume of the two swollen rivers shattered the levees and sent a wall of water crashing through the town, sweeping away people and buildings in its wake. In Moissac, 120 people were killed, 1,400 houses were destroyed and nearly 6,000 people became homeless.

Along the Aveyron

Along the lower reaches of the River Aveyron, the low-lying quarters of all the towns and villages suffered flooding and damage from the swirling, mud-laden waters. No doubt the river also carried along trees and other debris that would have aggravated the damage.

Tranquil Aveyron at Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val
Today’s tranquil Aveyron at Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. The 1930 flood swamped the bridge (right)

At Saint-Antonin, where the River Bonnette joins the Aveyron, the flood started at 13h00 on 2nd March. At Caylus, upstream on the Bonnette, 144 mm of rain had fallen in two days, the equivalent of about six weeks’-worth of rain.

La Bonnette in full spate
La Bonnette in full spate

By the following morning, the Aveyron had risen by 11 metres, swamping the bridge at Saint-Antonin. The river continued on its destructive course downstream, hemmed in by the steep gorges, taking the bridge at Cazals with it and causing massive destruction as it spewed out into the plain beyond Montricoux.

The French President Gaston Doumergue toured the worst-affected communes a few days later. According to contemporary reports, “He lost his legendary smile.”

Seeking answers

Two questions were raised at the time: how did this catastrophe come about and why was there no warning?

A meteorologist, Maurice Pardé, drew up a detailed report about the origins of the disaster. He concluded that an exceptional set of climatic events, as I indicated in the first paragraph, had combined to cause the rivers to rise so high and so rapidly.

However, he warned that flooding could happen again and that the Tarn is “une des rivières les plus terribles de France.” People had been lulled into a false sense of security because the Tarn had not risen so high since the late 18th century.

Another reason for the lack of an alert was that the waters started to rise on a Sunday. The post and telegraph offices were closed. However, a telephone alert may not have helped. Not many people had a phone in 1930 and lines had been cut by falling trees and landslides caused by the appalling weather.

In addition, although the rain upstream was of almost Biblical proportions, downstream in Montauban and Moissac it was not especially heavy or sustained, so people had no cause for alarm. The rapid rise of the river took many by surprise.

Prevention

Pardé recommended reforesting the mountain slopes to contain rainwater, constructing a series of dams and reservoirs, building higher embankments and bridges, reinforcing the buildings, putting in place an early warning system and monitoring rainfall more systematically.

In our time here, the Aveyron and its tributary, the Bonnette, have flooded at Saint-Antonin, notably in 2003, 2018, and February 2021. Thankfully, it has not had such catastrophic consequences as in 1930, although people have been flooded out and evacuated on these occasions. An automatic early warning system exists and some of Pardé’s other suggestions have been carried out. Even so, the practice of building on flood plains continues, and this has had dire consequences in other parts of France in recent years.

You might also like:

A Trip Along the River Aveyron

Watery Walk – La Vallée de la Bonnette

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val: Haunting and Historic Town

The Tale of Napoleon’s Thumb (about Montauban’s history)

Musée Ingres at Montauban

Copyright © 2015 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

23 comments

  1. Hi Vanessa. I found this flood blog via your latest outing. Fascinating. We’ve been on the Tarn and the Garonne in our boat, seen the flood markers, moored in lovely Moissac and so floods are something we always take note of. Really enjoyed reading all about it.
    MJ

    Liked by 1 person

    • These waterways can be treacherous at times, especially in weather such as we’ve been having. They rise so quickly. Moissac had the worst of it in 1930, being at the confluence of the Tarn and the Aveyron. I was shocked this year to see how widely the Garonne had flooded downriver near Marmande. Awful for the people who are flooded out.

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      • We saw some footage of hire boats adrift on the Garonne, bashing into bridges, awful. We’re thinking of bringing our boat back down to that neck of the woods if we can this summer. Have to pick our spot with care!!

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        • Yes, I saw that, too. I imagine it will have subsided by the summer! Even so, there can be torrential rain in mid-late September – more often around the Med. Bon courage!

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  2. Very interesting. I’ve visited St Antonin and stayed in Montauban but didn’t know about this. I’ve seen huge storm drains in places like Collioure and Vernet-les-Bains so am aware of the huge problems with floods in France. I remember that we were in St Antonin immediately after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. For some reason, I was surprised to see notices informing people that she was missing. The place seemed too off the radar to know about such things!

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    • Fortunately, it’s an event that doesn’t happen that often, although parts of Saint-Antonin were again flooded this winter owing to the persistent rainfall. Actually, a lot of foreigners (non-French) live in Saint-Antonin, so it’s not as far off the radar as all that, although I know it seems like a sleepy place.

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  3. salut, je travaille sur un gros projet, innondtions, pourquoi vous l’avez fait en anglais? je suis bilingue,ça ira bien donc merci, mais étrange quand même, il est peut être en français votre blog mais mon journal a chopé la version anglaise, bon dimanche, jéma élisabeth harlokee

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    • Bonjour. C’est en anglais puisque je suis anglaise ! J’habite en France depuis 20 ans, mais j’écris pour un public anglophone qui s’intéresse aux faits et histoire français. Désolée, mais je suis sure que vous trouverez l’histoire de cet évènement en français sur l’internet. Bonne soirée.

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    • Hi Beetleypete, I see from your blog that you live in Norfolk. Well, perhaps moving uphill might not be a bad idea given how things may develop. I don’t want to sound smug, but we live 1,000 feet above sea level and the nearest stream is well below us. For us to get flooded it would have to be the apocalypse. They continue to build on flood plains in France, though, and the result is often catastrophic for people who live in those places. Some of them have been flooded out several times in the past few years.

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      • Glad to hear that you are high up. We also live far from flood problems, 18 miles from the coast, and some distance from any substantial rivers. Mind you, we have had a flood of three inches deep in an outside brick-built shed, caused by groundwater, so not completely safe!
        Best wishes from the (fairly) flat lands. Pete.

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    • It’s on the other side of the bridge from the Musée Ingres. Not easy to get a sense of it from a photo, but when you see it you’ll realise just how high the water came.

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