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NOVA: Storm That Drowned A City

Two men paddle in high water after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, August 31, 2005, in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Two men paddle in high water after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, August 31, 2005, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Airs Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 3 p.m. on KPBS TV

A 300-Year Struggle

French explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville made a fateful decision in 1717 when he chose the site for New Orleans along a sharp bend in the Mississippi River. Bienville selected the site against the objections of his chief engineer, who realized that the area suffered from periodic floods. New Orleanians have been paying the price of Bienville's insistence ever since, from the first major flood shortly after the town's founding to the merciless juggernaut that was Hurricane Katrina. Follow the historical trajectory of New Orleans' ever-worsening struggle to keep out water. —Peter Tyson

In less than 12 hours on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Louisiana coast, leading to more than a thousand deaths and transforming a city of over one million into an uninhabitable swamp. "Storm That Drowned A City" is NOVA's definitive investigation into the science of Hurricane Katrina, combining a penetrating analysis of what went wrong with a dramatic, minute-by-minute unfolding of events told through eyewitness testimony. What made this storm so deadly? Will powerful hurricanes like Katrina strike more often? How accurately did scientists predict its impact, and why did the levees protecting New Orleans fail?

Unlike many news shows on Katrina, this program focuses in depth on the factors that made New Orleans so vulnerable. Shrinking wetlands had steadily eroded the city's natural protective barrier against the fury of tropical storms. Ironically, the vast effort invested in diverting the Mississippi River and building defensive levees had only helped to accelerate the sinking of entire neighborhoods below sea level. Meanwhile, growing evidence indicates that poor construction led to the failure of several critical levees (see How the City Flooded). The program investigates these issues with exclusive coverage of top engineers, hurricane experts, and emergency officials as they grapple with the first few traumatic days of the disaster.

Map The Flood

Use this map and zoom in on your part of the U.S. to see how much of your area would have been flooded if it had a similar elevation.

The one-hour documentary also shows how the disastrous impact of a strong hurricane was clearly foreseen by the scientists and agencies participating in "Exercise Pam" a year before Katrina (see The Man Who Knew). Computer models of Katrina's impact turned out to be impressively accurate, but the predictions ultimately failed to influence authorities and prevent the tragic aftermath of the storm.


More than just an engineering story, "Storm That Drowned A City" looks to the future and asks what can be done to make New Orleans a safely habitable city. In a program full of gripping footage gathered in the wake of the catastrophe, NOVA exposes the immense challenges posed by rebuilding New Orleans as well as examines why the city was so tragically unprepared when the long-feared disaster finally struck.

Watch an excerpt below or view the entire program online.

Video Excerpt: NOVA: Storm That Drowned A City