The earthquake and tsunami that demolished northeastern Japan in 2011 left many thousands of its survivors cut off from their homes. But displaced residents of Namie-machi, a small town on the eastern coast of the Pacific that's still in an exclusion zone, can now at least get a present-day glimpse of their neighborhood, thanks to Google.
The 21,000 residents of Namie-machi still are not allowed to enter the city, but they can access Street View imagery of it on Google Maps, Google announced Wednesday.
The images, which capture scenes such as collapsed buildings and wrecked fishing boats washed ashore, are the product of a joint effort between Google and Namie-machi Mayor Tamotsu Baba to give locals and people abroad a look at the damage left by the quake, tsunami and resulting nuclear meltdowns. Google captured the images with one of its regular Street View camera-equipped vehicles.
"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 a blog post.
While many areas of Japan have begun to recover since the 9.03-magnitude earthquake, Namie-machi's rebuilding has been slower. The town, which sits inside the Fukushima nuclear plant exclusion area, was been made a no-entry zone due to its high levels of radiation.
"With the lingering nuclear hazard, we have only been able to do cursory work for two whole years," Baba said. "We would greatly appreciate it if you viewed this Street View imagery to understand the current state of Namie-machi and the tremendous gravity of the situation," he wrote.
Many of the 140 fishing boats previously docked at the nearby Ukedo Harbor, for example, suffered some of the worst tsunami damage and have not been cleaned up since being washed several kilometers inland, Baba wrote.
"We want this Street View imagery to become a permanent record of what happened to Namie-machi in the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster," he wrote.
Google said it took government-prescribed precautions to make sure its workers were safe during the shoot, and vehicles were screened for radiation on a daily basis.
Some of the most jarring photographs were taken inside Namie-machi's Ukedo Elementary School, which looks like an abandoned warehouse. The floor of its gymnasium even sinks into the ground as if struck by a meteorite.
In total, Google's fleet of cars captured images encompassing thousands of miles, which also depict the coastal regions of Rikuzentakata, Otsuchi and Kesennuma. The work falls under the company's larger "Memories for the Future" project in Japan, which aims to help people rediscover lost memories of their homes and towns.
Google has unveiled some similarly awe-inspiring images of far-off locales in recent weeks. Panoramic photographs of Mount Everest and Mount Kilimanjaro were made available earlier this month, and in January Google Maps released 360-degree imagery of the Grand Canyon.
More broadly, however, the company's imaging efforts have raised some serious privacy implications. Earlier this month Google agreed to pay US$7 million to settle complaints from dozens of U.S. states about personal data it had inadvertently collected with its Street View cars between 2008 and 2010.