Web Maps Offer Info, Aid to Katrina Victims

Stu Hutson
for National Geographic News
September 12, 2005
Before Hurricane Katrina, a big oak tree stood in New Orleans resident Billie Baladouni's front yard. Now it appears the tree has fallen on her sun deck.

Still, Baladouni, the associate director for the Loyola Institute for Ministry, takes solace in the fact that she can see the top of her carport, which means that the New Orleans floodwaters didn't reach her second floor.

In the devastating wake of the hurricane, there's nothing especially remarkable about this damage—except for the fact that Baladouni saw it from her daughter's house in Virginia.

More precisely, Baladouni viewed a satellite image of her home via her daughter's computer using Google Maps.

The service—and a host of spin-off sites—are giving displaced residents and others a bird's-eye view of Katrina's aftermath.

Data Mapping

Launched in February, Google Maps is similar to other Web-based map services that offer driving directions or neighborhood layouts.

But instead of calling up a drawn map, the site uses pictures taken from satellites and aircraft to give an aerial view of a territory. Users can search by street address and can zoom in close enough to pinpoint rooftops of individual homes.

Most of the images currently on the site are about a year old. But when Hurricane Katrina hit, Bret Taylor, product manager for Google Maps, and his team began developing an updated version of the New Orleans region.

The new city map uses post-Katrina satellite imagery taken by Google's associate company, Digital Globe, along with images provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Baladouni, the New Orleans resident, says there's something staggering about seeing the full width of the disaster and something even more unsettling about zooming in to your own home.

"This isn't like seeing it on TV where you hope to catch a glimpse of something familiar," she said. "This is closer to taking a walk down the streets."

Taylor, of Google Maps, said his team is continuing to update the images displayed on the service about once a week. The goal, he said, is to use the free service to bring as much comfort and support to its users as possible.

"Like every other company [offering aid], we were concerned about the people affected by this," Taylor said. "This was an obvious way that we could use our service to help."

"Initially [the map] brought a sinking feeling to my stomach and tears of concern for those who haven't evacuated," Baladouni said. "The reality didn't sink in until I saw that image and I knew that my entire first floor was flooded."

"Little by little, though, reality is sinking in," she said. "And there's a certain peace of mind that comes along with knowing—and not guessing—what condition your home is in."

In addition to its map service, Google is making financial donations and is helping develop other technological solutions to aid the hurricane victims.

Digital Community

One of the most useful aspects of Google Maps is its openness to user modifications.

The company designed the service so that users can download computer code that allows them to display Google's maps on their own Web page. The code can then be modified with a programming language called Java to add unique applications.

This function has spawned an abundance of spin-off sites designed to help hurricane victims.

The most popular site—as ranked by Google's report of the number of daily page hits—is an application developed by C&C Technologies, a surveying company in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Curtis Callaway, C&C's senior systems developer, says a company manager is hosting his sister, who fled New Orleans when Katrina hit. He became frustrated hearing only rumors about the depth of flooding in her house.

"So [the manager] came into my office and said we should be able to do this," Curtis said.

The company used data gathered by Louisiana State University, individual reports, and National Guard members, who traded information on water depth at various locations for use of about 20 of C&C's satellite phones.

The aggregate data helped C&C develop their own modification of Google Maps that displays the current depth of water in any part of New Orleans along with the maximum depth reached at that location.

The second most popular spin-off site is Built by two software designers in Austin, Texas, it allows users to mark specific points on Google's map with notes and questions.

So far there are more than 14,000 markers and about 4,000 more added each day. Among the posted messages:

• "Hynes Elementary School, 10 feet of water inside."

• "Can someone check on 3920 banks? My bro and wife are missingour mother and their son rob are with me"

• "Rose, Lillie, safe in Baton Rouge. Miss our Neighbors."

And at a street intersection:

• "Lost my sister"

"It's heart-wrenching to read some of these," said co-creator Greg Stoll. "But people have to have a way to communicate when they lose every other way."

Another charitable mutation of Google Maps is, which marks shelters and individual homes willing to take in refugees. Currently the site has almost 6,500 openings available in more than 1,000 shelters nationwide.

"These types of sites show the ingenuity that people can pull together in a crisis," Google's Taylor said. "There's no end to the ways we can help one another out."

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