On November 19, 1824, the largest flood St. Petersburg has ever witnessed in its 300 years of existence hit the city, as the water increased up to 13.5 feet above the average water level, taking the lives of 208 people and sweeping 462 houses into the sea.
Floods are an integral part of St. Petersburg’s profile, with the first one witnessed as early as the August of 1703, when in just a few hours water had surged up 6.5 feet. Ever since, working out preventive measures to reduce victims and damage from the flood has topped the agenda of the city authorities. A decree dated 1721 read, “The moment when water starts coming up, all the people and livestock are to be removed further in the woods.”
Empress Catherine I issued a decree which required marking the water level each time a flood struck and elevating the dams by one foot above that level. Catherine II the Great had water canals built. As a flood alert, cannon fire was used to inform the population, as well as drums and church bells. On the spires, red flags were erected by day and lamps lit up by night to signify the flood.
Floods were an annual occurrence for St. Petersburg, most of them occurring in October and November. Such a natural phenomenon was accounted for by the strong winds stirring up waves in the Gulf of Finland, the body of water the Neva River flows into. Not even noticeable in the vast waters of the Gulf, the waves grow significantly and increase in speed toward the narrow mouth of the Neva. Driven by strong winds, the excessive waters reach a critical point and the river overflows, burying the entire city underwater.
On the eve of the disaster, a strong wind started blowing, growing into a heavy storm by night. Witnesses recalled how careless the citizens of St. Petersburg were, when, on seeing the water coming up in the canals, they came out on the embankment to enjoy the vista of the storm. For many of them, their carelessness cost them lives. In just a few hours the Neva River burst its banks across the city’s perimeter, covering almost the entire city with water the height of a person.
People tried to rescue themselves by all means possible: some climbed up the roofs, or stayed on the tall bridges, others floated on the surface, holding on to a log or gripping a horse’s mane.
Many people died while attempting to hide their chattels in the cellars to keep them safe. One of the survivors later recalled, “The view was unbelievable. The Winter Palace was holding on like a rock in the midst of the storm, withstanding the pressure of the waves, crashing with a roar against its solid walls and sending splashes up to its top; the water in the Neva was boiling, like in a huge pot, turning the flow backwards with power never seen before… At the square in front of the palace, the vista was different – under the sky, almost black, dark greenish water was raging, like in a monstrous whirlpool; in the air… huge sheets of iron were flying, ripped off the General Staff building, and the storm was playing with them like with a toy…” The storm ceased in a few hours, leaving the city in rubble.
In the wake of the disaster, a lot of projects concerning the city’s protection were suggested but remained on paper.
After the historic flood of 1824, the city survived a number of other floods, but none of them was as destructive and violent.