MADELEINE BRAND, host:
As we've reported, hundreds of thousands of people from areas affected by Hurricane Katrina have been relocated, which means many have to watch rescue efforts from afar. But some people have found a way to check on conditions in their neighborhoods using detailed satellite and aerial photos that can be easily found online. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
LAURA SYDELL reporting:
As Hurricane Katrina descended on New Orleans, R.C. Kaiser(ph) says his family was worried, especially his mom. The Kaiser family's closest friends lived in New Orleans.
Mr. R.C. KAISER: My mom was basically going crazy over it, so I went out there and started looking at all these different Web sites, trying to find ways I could possibly see if they were OK, try to see if their house was flooded and things like that.
SYDELL: Kaiser didn't have much luck, until he came across a site called scipionus.com. That's S-C-I-P-I-O-N-U-S.
Mr. KAISER: It's set up so that you can see a street map. You can click on the next thing where it shows you the satellite view, and it's also got a hybrid, so you've got the satellite view, but it also shows you the names of the streets on the satellite view.
SYDELL: And comments from people who recently visited neighborhoods hit by the storm. The Web site uses satellite and aerial photos taken after Hurricane Katrina hit. Kaiser could zoom in so close, he could see which houses were standing, which were flooded and which roads were clear. Using that information, he helped direct a relative of their trapped friends through the streets that hadn't flooded. The family was rescued.
Mr. KAISER: A matter of fact, now they're here in Houston visiting their godson and stuff like that.
SYDELL: The Web site, scipionus.com, was created by two young men in Texas, one of whom, Jonathan Mendez, had a family home in New Orleans. Mendez, a 24-year-old computer programmer, went searching for information on the Internet.
Mr. JONATHAN MENDEZ (Scipionus.com): And I kept thinking to myself, what would be really great if this were on a map somewhere, 'cause you could just zoom in on your part of town and be able to see what had happened there.
SYDELL: Mendez's friend, Greg Stoll, a software engineer, had been looking through satellite and aerial images of the affected area on Google Maps. Together, the two men created a site that allowed people to post information about a neighborhood directly to the map. Since they created scipionus.com last Wednesday, the site's had more than 150,000 visitors. The aerial shots of the hurricane-ravaged area were compiled by Google from two places: a private company called DigitalGlobe, which uses satellite pictures, and a federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which sends up planes to take photos. The aerial photos are somewhat more detailed than satellite pictures, says Mike Eslaskin(ph) of NOAA. The primary purpose of the photos is to help rescue efforts.
Mr. MIKE ESLASKIN (NOAA): The first responders, the federal and state emergency management agencies who need the imagery and we'll make sure that they can support their needs as far as damage assessment and possibly search and rescue.
SYDELL: But starting with Hurricane Isabel back in September of 2003, NOAA began to put the aerial photos on their public Web site. Eslaskin says some members of the public sought out the photos back then, but interest has shot up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; not only from the general public but a few insurance companies use the pictures to check on conditions on the ground. However, Eslaskin says that they still haven't finished taking photos of the whole area.
Mr. ESLASKIN: You know, I've personally received hundreds of e-mails from folks just saying, you know, `Look, you're missing these areas and/or, you know, we need to go here because this will help me make a decision whether to go back or not.'
SYDELL: Eventually, the aerial photos that have been put up will become outdated as the water recedes and repairs take place. Eslaskin believes that with improved satellite technology, it will be possible to have real-time pictures of disasters, making it that much easier for emergency workers and the public to know what's happening on the ground as it unfolds. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
BRAND: And there's a close-up view of the battered Superdome and links to all the other satellite images at our Web site, npr.org.
DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.