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Hurricanes: New Orleans Under Threat

  • Teacher Resource
  • Posted 12.17.05
  • NOVA scienceNOW

Long before Hurricane Katrina, most experts knew the city of New Orleans was vulnerable. Situated up to 3.7 meters (12 feet) below sea level, between a lake and a river, and on the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast, the city was arguably a disaster waiting to happen. This video segment adapted from NOVA scienceNOW describes the threat Hurricane Ivan posed just one year before Katrina — an ominous foreshadowing of one of the country's worst natural disasters.

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NOVA scienceNOW Hurricanes: New Orleans Under Threat
  • Media Type: Video
  • Running Time: 5m 46s
  • Size: 17.2 MB
  • Level: Grades 6-12

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Source: NOVA scienceNOW "Hurricanes"

This resource was adapted from NOVA scienceNOW: "Hurricanes."


Humans have been altering the natural environment to suit their needs for thousands of years. We've constructed shelter where none existed, planted food crops where forests once flourished, and in one of the more striking examples, built an entire city in the middle of a swamp. New Orleans, Louisiana, is a testament to the human will and ingenuity required to overcome seemingly impossible odds — in a part of the world where a great deal of commerce stood to be gained. However, in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina tragically illustrated the potential consequences of defying the forces of nature.

New Orleans sits in the middle of an ancient floodplain of the Mississippi River. Periodically, this mighty river, like most wild rivers, overflowed its banks, inundating the surrounding area. What was a natural and necessary occurrence for the wetland ecosystem of the Gulf coast threatened the viability of communities along the banks of the Mississippi. In response to this threat, people, as part of a government plan, began building a system of levees to heighten the river's banks and protect themselves from flooding.

Ironically, the centuries-old effort to control seasonal river flooding in New Orleans and other coastal cities has made the same communities increasingly vulnerable to ocean flooding from tropical storms and hurricanes. Wetlands along the Gulf coast provide the first line of defense against deadly hurricanes, by both limiting the storms' access to the warm open ocean water that drives them and by creating a physical barrier to the floodwaters, or storm surges, that they generate. Yet, coastal wetlands have been deteriorating and shrinking for decades because they no longer receive the influx of sediment and nutrients that periodic river flooding once provided.

The bottom, or substrate, of coastal wetlands is unstable. It settles and sinks continuously. Without a steady supply of new sediment and nutrients, wetland plants soon become flooded themselves, causing expanses of open water to form. As a result of Mississippi River flood control, together with the opening of shipping channels that have caused saltwater to infiltrate freshwater wetlands, Louisiana has lost nearly 5180 square kilometers (2,000 square miles) of coastal wetlands, an area the size of the state of Delaware, in the last 70 years. As this trend continues, the likelihood that another hurricane will devastate the Gulf Coast region only increases.

To learn what happened when a Category 4 hurricane struck New Orleans, check out Hurricane Katrina: Wetland Destruction, Hurricane Katrina: A Scientist's Response, Hurricane Katrina: Possible Causes.

To learn about the equipment and methods scientists use to predict hurricanes, check out Hurricanes: New Tools for Predicting.

To learn more about how hurricanes form, check out How Hurricanes Form and Earth System: El Niño's Influence on Hurricane Formation.

Questions for Discussion

    • Explain the process that has led to New Orleans becoming a "bowl."
    • What is a storm surge? Why is a storm surge particularly dangerous when a hurricane hits New Orleans?
    • Wetlands around New Orleans are disappearing. What effect does this have upon the storm surge of a hurricane?
    • What role did draining swampland and creating levees around New Orleans have upon its vulnerability to hurricanes?
    • What aspects of New Orleans make it so vulnerable to being devastated by a large hurricane?

Resource Produced by:

					WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Developed by:

						WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:

						National Science Foundation

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