NEW ORLEANS – Only a few mouse clicks away, a total revision of the recent history of the Big Easy is on offer from Google Inc.'s popular map portal.
The company has replaced post-Hurricane Katrina satellite imagery with pictures taken before the storm, and it's left locals feeling like they're in a time loop.
Chikai Ohazama, a Google product manager for satellite imagery, said the maps now available are the best the company can offer. He said numerous factors "go 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 lethal breach of the 17th Street Canal are gone. Homes wiped off their foundations are miraculously back in place in the Lower 9th Ward. So, too, is the historic lighthouse on Lake Pontchartrain.
Scroll across the city, and across 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 Lower 9th Ward Economic Development Association. "Just put in big bold this: 'Google don't pull the wool over the world's eyes. Let the truth shine."'
In the Lower 9th Ward, the truth isn't pretty 19 months after Katrina.
"Everything is missing. The people are missing. Nobody is there. We still have no idea what's happening," Henry said.
His pharmacy is still closed, the washateria next door hasn't even been gutted yet, and the church across the street is in bad shape, he said. None of that shows up on Google's satellite imagery.
Walter Stone, a local land surveyor, said he uses Google in his work and was surprised to discover the new (ergo old) imagery.
"For a while you could go look at the damage that was done, you could see the blue roofs on houses," he said.
Google has become a go-to service for people looking for a quick and easy way to get up-close satellite imagery of the world.
"I use it on a regular basis in my class," said Craig Colten, a geographer at Louisiana State University. "I teach a course about North America and I usually have it up constantly when I am teaching. I usually have a Google Earth image up behind me to zoom in on Manhattan or the fishing villages of Maine, whatever I'm talking about."
Colten, who has written extensively on New Orleans, called Google's switch "unbelievable."
"I'm sure the mayor is thrilled," he quipped, a reference to the slow pace of recovery of New Orleans and attempts by city leadership to paint a rosy picture of New Orleans.
After Katrina, Google's satellite images were in high demand among exiles and hurricane victims anxious to see if their homes were flooded or damaged by the storm.
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.
He'd love for the "new" Google images to be real. "Take a magic pill and go back into the past," Gerica said, laughing.
The virtual Potemkin village is fueling the imagination of frustrated locals.
"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."
"Is Google part of the conspiracy?" Henry asked, alluding to widespread feelings among many New Orleans blacks that they are being neglected in the rebuilding effort. "Why these images of pre-Katrina? Seems mighty curious."
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 lots of requests from users and governments to update and change its imagery.
David Gisclair, chairman of the Louisiana GIS Council, a consortium of state agencies, said he would try to get some answers from Google when the company shows up on April 19 in a bid to sell the state some new technology.
"Maybe we can strike a deal with Google to put the 2005 imagery of the city in ruins on the Web," he said.
"If we represent something," Gisclair said, "we should represent reality."