Katrina online

Google Earth provides images of destruction

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Star-Ledger Staff

PEOPLE GOOGLE their bosses. They Google their dates. They Google their neighbors.

And now, they are Googling what remains of their lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Survivors are using Google Earth, a free satellite imaging program, for glimpses of the destruction that awaits them when and if they return to their homes.

Across the Internet, tech-savvy volunteers have been adapting the latest aerial and satellite images of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast for viewing with Google Earth. Offered since June by the leading search engine company, the software lets users zoom and pan in and around images, sometimes zeroing in on specific addresses.

Fans of the software have been creating visual "overlays," so viewers can toggle between before and after scenes to gauge the damage.

While these efforts don't rank with those of rescue workers on the ground, "hopefully this helps a little bit," said Mickey Mellen, a church Web master in Atlanta who started a site called Google Earth Hacks in June to celebrate the coolness factor of Google Earth. Mellen's site is among several where tech-savvy volunteers are posting overlays. "Now," he says, "it's more than just 'Check out the Hoover Dam!' "

Volunteers were rallied to the cause by Kathryn Cramer, a science fiction editor from New York State who suggested on her Web log how somebody ought to be comparing all the photos and images of the disaster. Her blog includes how-to's and links to places with images.

"You look at all these technologies and say, 'Wow, cool, isn't this interesting.' But it's not a toy. It can really make a difference," Cramer said of Google Earth.

Victoria Matassa learned the fate of her family's summer home, on the banks of Lake Ponchartrain in the New Orleans suburb of Slidell, from an aerial image online.

"I saw that my house is structurally intact, but there is a bunch of debris. There's a sailboat in my neighbor's house," said Matassa, 22, who fled before the hurricane.

While she was relieved to see her house, Matassa said, the view "was kind of sickening."

The Associated Press on Friday posted an aerial image of New Orleans, post-Katrina, at http://hosted.ap.org/specials/neworleanssatellite/index.html

Online images also are available from the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and from commercial companies such as GlobeXplorer and Digital Globe.

On an average day, the USGS Web site (www.usgs.gov) gets 22,000 hits. Last Wednesday, it had nearly 289,000 hits, said spokesman Ronald Beck. The agency is bracing for a similar spike this afternoon, after it posts an updated satellite image of New Orleans and parts of Mississippi.

Imaging agencies and companies have been besieged by requests from people desperate for information about loved ones and property. They have offered to pay any amount for specific aerial pictures, "but we're powerless to help them," said Chris Becwar of GlobeXplorer, usually a clearinghouse for aerial images serving government agencies and real estate developers.

But there have been happy endings.

A woman called NOAA frantic for images of a naval retirement home in Gulfport, Miss. She feared the place was gone, along with her uncle.

NOAA's Mike Aslaksen took down the address and correlated it with an aerial photo made by a NOAA jet, which has been making three flights daily over the devastated Gulf region and recording up to 1,400 images each day. He told the woman the building appeared intact, with lots of activity around it.

"She just broke down in tears," Aslaksen said.

Kevin Coughlin covers technology. He can be reached at kcoughlin@starledger.com or (973) 392-1763.