The Fire of Notre Dame: Economic Lessons Learned

The content of this blog is part of a paper presented at the 6th International Conference on Disaster Management and Human Health Risk: Reducing Risk, Improving Outcomes in Ancona Italy 25-27 September, 2019.


On the 15th of April 2019 at 6:18pm, a fire began in the roof of the French gothic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The Cathedral has stood in the heart of Paris for over 850 years, an icon of French culture and history known throughout the world. Notre Dame is the most popular landmark in Paris with 12 million visitors in 2017, double that of the Eiffel Tower. As the structure burned, people around the world watched on in horror. While such a disaster might seem unthinkable, the reality is that such a fire was considered a highly possible scenario. Because of this, the structure had an extensive fire detection and warning system installed that took six years to develop, there was a fire guard posted to the site at all times to monitor the site and respond to alarms and the Parisian fire department ran drills for such an event regularly which allowed for their coordinated response to the incident. Despite these measures and the known risk, no protective sprinkler systems or fire walls were installed in the building. In older historic structures these measures are often foregone due to aesthetic reasons and concerns about water damage to interiors and artefacts. 

Damage to Notre Dame Cathedral

The actual destruction caused by the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral was extensive but it is difficult to make a true estimate of the costs of the damage. Due to a restoration project that was in progress at the time of the fire, several artefacts, sculptures and architectural features were already taken offsite and therefore spared from the flames. This, along with practice drills of firefighters and first-responders, paid off with a coordinated human chain formed to remove many precious artworks and relics, including the crown of thorns and tunic of St Louis. There were still significant losses, including: 

  • Two-thirds of the roof
  • The famous spire of the cathedral
  • Centuries-old statues of saints that were perched on the spire
  • Ceiling vaults that were made of a ’forest’ of primeval oak trees.

Environmental Costs

As well as costs from damage to the structure and contents of the Cathedral, there are major environmental costs that arose from this disaster. The spire and roof frame that were destroyed in the fire were made of over 400 tonnes of lead. As it burned, the lead melted, vaporising and oxidising the metal and releasing toxic fumes into the air. Winds transported and deposited lead dust in the streets, water and soil of surrounding neighbourhoods. Levels of lead were elevated in the surrounding neighbourhoods, including at three elementary schools and one kindergarten. However, the presence of this environmental hazard was not officially reported until two weeks after the fire. This means that local residents, onlookers and children attending these schools were exposed without knowledge of the risks. (The risk of lead contamination is considered greatest for those under the age of 7 and pregnant women.) After this, the French government reported that the presence of lead was at ‘safe levels’, yet according to the World Health Organisation, there is no safe level of lead exposure. As lead is a cumulative toxin, risk of poisoning increases with length of exposure, and lead poisoning can lead to irreversible neurological and behavioural damage. Only time will tell the true extent of the environmental and health damages that arose from this incident. 

Costs and Time of Other Restorations

Estimating the time and cost of the restoration is another very difficult aspect of understanding the true cost of the Notre Dame fire. The original structure of the Cathedral took over 200 years to build and underwent many developments changes over time. While financial pledges for reconstruction have reached almost $1 billion Euros and President Macron declared a 5 year timeline for completing the reconstruction, this has been designated as a highly ambitious and unlikely timeline by many industry experts, who suggest a more reasonable but still conservative expectation for a comprehensive, high quality reconstruction would be 10-15+ years. Estimating the likely cost and time frame of repairs is challenging due to:

  • Lack of available resources to recreate damaged areas – for example, the vaulted ceiling was made from over 5,000 ancient oak trees that no longer exist in such large quantities.
  • The limited number of trained tradespeople with the skills and techniques to recreate certain features.
  • Difficulties determining if the building is safe or structurally sound enough for workers to enter and inspect the damage, let alone commence the necessary repair work.
  • Inconclusivity around to the approach to be taken to reconstruction – the style of the approach will have major impacts on cost and timeline as the costs and time associated with faithful reproduction of style and materials is different to using non-traditional techniques and modern technologies and materials. 

Simulation Model of Future Lost Income

Understanding the full cost of the Notre Dame fire requires accounting for not only costs incurred by the damage and those of undertaking the reconstruction but also the lost income from future tourism activity. This lost income can be simulated through modelling various factors, shown in the table below. To determine these estimates we considered a range of information including: 

  • Estimates of visitor numbers based on historical data with three scenarios for the reduction in tourist numbers: Best: 20%; Base: 50%; Worst: 70%.
  • Average spend on souvenirs at the Cathedral varying from 10 Euro to 40 Euro.
  • Average entry fee to the Tower and the Crypt at 9 Euro.
  • Average accommodation costs of 100 Euro and 170 Euro.

According to this modelling, the best case scenario is a loss of 307 million Euro in revenue during the 5 years President Macron in which has committed to rebuild, and the worst case scenario is a loss of 3.929 billion Euro over these 5 years. Obviously, the longer it takes to reconstruct the Cathedral, the more tourism revenue is likely to be lost.

Lessons Learned from Notre Dame Fire 

There are many lessons we can take away from the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral. While there are often significant costs associated with retro-fitting old structures with fire safety systems, these costs are far outweighed by the potential costs of a fire to the building itself, the contents, the surrounding environment, tourism and, of course, the health and wellbeing of first responders and those living and working in the surrounding areas. In terms of fire safety and preparedness in older and historical buildings, it is common for the systems put in place to avoid the use of sprinkler systems for reasons such as: 

  • Not wanting to alter the historical authenticity or aesthetic of a building.
  • The risk of water damage to the building or its historical contents in the case of a real or false fire alarm being triggered.
  • The electrical wiring itself posing a potential fire hazard.

While these are relevant considerations, the lessons from the fire at Notre Dame are clear: once these original structures are gone, they are gone forever, and the true costs of a fire are far more than just those to property or economy; rather, they exist in culture, the environment, and health and human life. The full damage, implications and costs of this fire are yet to be understood and we must be vigilant in monitoring the environmental and health impacts of the fire, especially on those at risk of lead toxicity, including first responders, local residents, reconstruction workers and future visitors to the site.

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