Google Releases Street View Images From Fukushima Ghost Town

Google Inc. released images taken by its Street View service from the town of Namie, Japan, inside the zone that was evacuated after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011.

Google, operator of the world’s biggest Web search engine, entered Namie this month at the invitation of the town’s mayor, Tamotsu Baba, and produced the 360-degree imagery for the Google Maps and Google Earth services, it said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

All of Namie’s 21,000 residents were forced to flee after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the town, causing the world’s worst nuclear accident after Chernobyl. Baba asked Mountain View, California-based Google to map the town to create a permanent record of its state two years after the evacuation, he said in a Google blog post.

“Many of the displaced townspeople have asked to see the current state of their city, and there are surely many people around the world who want a better sense of how the nuclear incident affected surrounding communities,” Baba said in the post. “It has become our generation’s duty to make sure future generations understand the city’s history and culture.”

Three reactors melted down at the Dai-Ichi plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., after the earthquake and tsunami. About 160,000 people were forced to evacuate and a 20-kilometer no-go zone was set up because of radiation fallout.

Cars, Coke

Street View images show a city frozen in time with abandoned cars and Coca-Cola Co. vending machines still full of drinks. At the “Friend Shop” near highway 6, weeds were growing in the parking lot and the windows still had clothing hanging on display. In another scene, Street View shows a building façade falling apart with rubble in the street.

Google began gathering the Street View images earlier this month, a process that took about two weeks in a single car, Google said in an e-mailed statement. Once completed, company staff worked all weekend to stitch the images together digitally to create the Street View images.

By providing a memento of the past, the images can facilitate residents’ healing, said Mary Comerio, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It’s obviously a way to record the quality of life that existed in that place and to recognize the special quality of each person’s home and each property,” she said. “If they make a choice to recreate somewhere else, they have a kind of archaeological record of what they had before.”

Katrina, Haiti

This isn’t the first time that Google Street View and other mapping services have been used after a disaster. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Google used its Street View technology to assist in the recovery effort. Relief workers used OpenStreetMap to provide aid to survivors of the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, said Mike Dobson, president of TeleMapics LLC, a consulting firm, and former chief cartographer at Rand McNally & Co.

“Humans are used to looking outwards and upwards -- and that’s what street view does so well; it mimics the way we see things,” Dobson said. “People’s desire to know how to get between places is a compelling urge. This expands the horizon.”

Soon after the disasters in Japan, Google released aerial images of affected areas. It also offered services to help victims touch base with friends and loved ones.

Street View’s images also serve as a reminder of the risks of growth in a region susceptible to tsunamis, said Dana Buntrock, who also teaches at the University of California at Berkeley and is affiliated with the school’s Center for Japanese Studies.

“Right after the earthquake, people recalled that in much earlier periods there were often stone monuments put up in the locations where the tsunami had reached, and people said, ‘Wow, we really allowed ourselves to forget,’” Buntrock said. “The entire coast along there has been built up in ways that created vulnerabilities.”

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