NOVA Special: Storm That Drowned a City


Tuesday, November 22, 2005 at 8 PM ET on PBS

is followed by a separate FRONTLINE report on the politics of Katrina,

In the revealing, in-depth new documentary Storm That Drowned a City, NOVA deconstructs the passage of events that led to Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, and exposes critical failures in preparation and engineering that brought about the worst disaster in U.S. history. The film examines the immense challenges posed by rebuilding New Orleans and other coastal areas, and whether the increase in these killer storms is due to global warming or just part of a natural cycle.

Unlike countless news reports surrounding the event, Storm That Drowned a City is a definitive investigation of the science used to predict the catastrophic storm and its outcome a year in advance, as well as to track the storm as it formed and struck in late August. The film also uses science to explain the crucial impact of the disappearing wetlands surrounding the city, and to report on the latest findings on the possible link between global warming and the intensity of storms.

NOVA presents gripping footage and interviews along with a penetrating analysis of what went wrong-combining dramatic, minute-by-minute unfolding of events told through eyewitness testimony and exclusive coverage of top engineers, hurricane experts, geologists and emergency officials on the ground as they grappled with the first few traumatic days of the disaster.

In less than twelve hours during August 29th, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Louisiana coast, resulting in more than 1,200 deaths and transforming a city of over one million into a virtually uninhabitable swamp. Storm That Drowned a City reveals how the disastrous impact of a strong hurricane was clearly foreseen by the scientists and agencies participating in “Exercise Pam” a year before Katrina. Their computer models turned out to be impressively accurate, but the predictions ultimately failed to influence authorities or prevent the tragic aftermath of the storm.

Storm That Drowned a City also examines the growing evidence to support the theory that poor construction led to the failure of several critical levees. Were the damage and loss of life avoidable? In the aftermath of Katrina, the impact of the storm surge on the levees presented a puzzle to investigating engineers. The area of collapse responsible for up to 80 percent of the flooding experienced the least surge and least wind during the storm-equivalent to the conditions of only a Category 1 or 2 hurricane.

NOVA heads to the breach with a veteran coastal engineer, who finds troubling evidence suggesting the floodwall was not overtopped but undermined, indicating that it was not the strength of Katrina that had been the key factor. Avoidable structural failure that fatally weakened the stormwall’s foundations appears to have been the reason that most of downtown New Orleans was destroyed.

More than an engineering story, the documentary also focuses in depth on other factors that made New Orleans so vulnerable. Louisiana’s coastline is being destroyed at a staggering rate of 20 square miles per year, or the equivalent of nearly one football field every hour. These shrinking wetlands have steadily eroded the city’s natural protective barrier against the fury of tropical storms. Ironically, the vast effort invested in diverting the Mississippi and building defensive levees has only helped to accelerate the chronic decline, since they prevent the natural flood stage of the river from replenishing these areas annually.

The film also turns to science to explore whether stronger hurricanes are becoming more common, and if the impact of the global climate is changing. The number of Category 4 or 5 hurricanes, which are twice as deadly as Category 3 storms, has almost doubled worldwide over the last 20 years. Could global warming be responsible? NOVA presents the latest science and alarming research linking an increase in sea surface temperatures to hurricane strength. The disturbing implication is that we must prepare for more intense storms in the years to come. Finally, NOVA looks to the future and asks what can be done to make New Orleans a habitable and safer city.

Beginning November 17, viewers can also log on to experience special website features created to coincide with the NOVA premiere: The site will contain a “Shifting Tides” timeline, which charts the massive public works projects designed, built, and maintained over the past 200 years in order to keep water out of the city-with varying degrees of success. Another feature on the site will be the “Anatomy of Katrina,” a chart for users to follow the hurricane from its birth in the open ocean through its catastrophic encounter with the Gulf Coast.

After the broadcast, FRONTLINE takes an in-depth look at the confused chain of command-from city hall to the White House-that failed to respond to the magnitude of the crisis. Veteran FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith leads a team exploring the decisions made before Katrina hit and in the desperate moments when New Orleans devolved into chaos.

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