Congress questions Google over maps whitewashing Katrina damage

Panda Meander teams 5K run, talent show
April 2, 2007
Hazel Pitre
April 4, 2007
Panda Meander teams 5K run, talent show
April 2, 2007
Hazel Pitre
April 4, 2007

Associated Press Writer

A Congressional subcommittee is calling upon Google Inc. to explain why it was “airbrushing history” by replacing post-Hurricane Katrina satellite imagery on its popular map portal with images of the region as it existed before the storm destroyed neighborhoods, uprooted trees and dashed bridges.

Swapping the post-Katrina images, and all the ruin and tragedy they revealed, for others showing an idyllic city smacked as uncanny for many locals, and even fueled suspicions of a conspiracy.

Citing an Associated Press report on Thursday, the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight asked Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt to elucidate why his company is using the outdated imagery.

“Google’s use of old imagery appears to be doing the victims of Hurricane Katrina a great injustice by airbrushing history,” wrote U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., the subcommittee chairman, in a Friday letter to Schmidt.

Google had been providing imagery of how the region looked after Katrina, but replaced that with images before the storm. And a virtual trip through that old New Orleans is a surreal experience of scrolling across a landscape of packed parking lots and marinas full of boats.

The reality, of course, is very different: Entire neighborhoods are now slab mosaics where houses once stood and shopping malls, churches and marinas are empty of life, and often gone entirely.

Andrew Kovacs, a Google spokesman, confirmed receipt of Miller’s letter and added that “we’ve reached out” to Schmidt. He declined to go into greater detail about Google’s decision to switch the imagery. He said efforts are underway to use more current imagery.

John Hanke, Google’s director for maps and satellite imagery, said “a combination of factors including imagery date, resolution, and clarity” go into deciding what imagery to provide.

“The latest update from one of our information providers substantially improved the imagery detail of the New Orleans area,” Hanke said in a statement in explaining the switch.

Chikai Ohazama, a Google Inc. product manager for satellite imagery, 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.

Miller asked Google to brief his staff by next Friday on who made the decision to replace the imagery with pre-Katrina images and to disclose if Google was contacted by city, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Geological Survey or any other federal entity about changing the imagery.

Miller said “to use older, pre-Katrina imagery when more recent images are available without some explanation as to why appears to be fundamentally dishonest.”

So far, it’s unclear why the images were changed. Ohazama said users and governments often ask Google to update and change its imagery, but the office of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin says it did not have a hand in the matter.

After Katrina, Google’s satellite images were in high demand among exiles and hurricane victims anxious to see whether their homes were damaged.

Hanke said Google worked with the U.S. Coast Guard to get fresh imagery of the disaster that was of “the highest quality available and more easily accessible to the public than ever before” and that helped relief efforts.

Edith Holleman, staff counsel for the House subcommittee, said it would be useful to understand how Google acquires and manages its imagery because “people see Google and other Internet engines and it’s almost like the official word.”

Google does provide imagery of New Orleans and the region following Katrina through its more specialized service called Google Earth.