NEW ORLEANS — Google's popular map portal has replaced post-Hurricane Katrina satellite imagery with pictures taken before the storm, leaving locals feeling like they're in a time loop and even fueling suspicions of a conspiracy.
Scroll across the city and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and everything is back to normal: Marinas are filled with boats, bridges are intact and parks are filled with healthy, full-bodied trees.
"Come on," said an incredulous Ruston Henry, president of the economic development association in New Orleans' devastated Lower 9th Ward. "Just put in big bold this: 'Google, don't pull the wool over the world's eyes. Let the truth shine.'"
Chikai Ohazama, a Google Inc. product manager for satellite imagery, said the maps now available are the best the company can offer. Numerous factors decide what goes into the databases, "everything from resolution, to quality, to when the actual imagery was acquired."
He said he was not sure when the current images replaced views of the city taken after Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005, flooding an estimated 80 percent of New Orleans.
In the images available Thursday, the cranes working to fix the breach of the 17th Street Canal are gone. Blue tarps that covered roofless homes are replaced by shingles. Homes wiped off their foundations are miraculously back in place in the Lower 9th. So, too, is the historic lighthouse on Lake Pontchartrain.
But in the Lower 9th Ward, the truth isn't as pretty, 19 months after Katrina.
"Everything is missing. The people are missing. Nobody is there," Henry said.
After Katrina, Google's satellite images were in high demand among exiles and hurricane victims anxious to see whether their homes were damaged.
The new, virtual Potemkin village is fueling the imagination of locals frustrated with the slow pace of recovery and what they see as attempts by political leaders to paint a rosier picture.
Pete Gerica, a fisherman who lives in eastern New Orleans, said he printed pictures of his waterside homestead from Google to use in his arguments with insurance adjusters.
"I think a lot of stuff they're doing right now is smoke and mirrors because tourism is so off," Gerica said. "It might be somebody's weird spin on things looking better."
Henry also wondered whether Google's motives might be less than pure.
"Is Google part of the conspiracy?" he said. "Why these images of pre-Katrina? Seems mighty curious."
Ceeon Quiett, spokeswoman for Mayor Ray Nagin, said that as far as she knew, the city did not request the map change.
"My first reaction was, that's a bit problematic," she said.
Ohazama, the Google product manager, said he "personally" was not asked by city or state officials to change the imagery, but he added that Google gets many requests from users and governments to update and change its imagery.
Google has become a go-to service for people looking for up-close satellite imagery.
"I use it on a regular basis in my class," said Craig Colten, a geographer at Louisiana State University who has written extensively on New Orleans. He called Google's switch "unbelievable."
"I'm sure the mayor is thrilled," he quipped.
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