Disaster History, Brought to You By Google

On Japan's tsunami-battered coast, a new way to remember the devastation.

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Carlos Barria/Reuters

The road to recovery has not always been easy to navigate in the ruined coastal towns of Northeastern Japan, where the crest of the March 2011 tsunami reached 133 feet. How many storm-ravaged buildings -- out of the one million structures damaged, collapsed or destroyed in the tsunami -- ought to be preserved in remembrance of the disaster?

After a long, emotional debate, the answer increasingly seems to be: not many. For residents coping with painful memories and officials planning reconstruction efforts, to rebuild is to demolish.

On the Internet, though, the towns of the Iwate province will be frozen in time, three-dimensional models of devastation with a permanence that recalls only Pompeii. Thanks to Google, streets and buildings, inside and out, are being preserved in click-through models that document what happened once the wave had receded.

"These stricken buildings are an important memory," says one resident, in a video released this week by Google. "One that we'd like to pass on to the next generation."

The project, "Memories for the Future," began with a team from Google Streetview compiling a set of before-and-after panoramas of the region's street network. Now, with demolition imminent, Google has begun constructing three-dimensional interior maps of dozens of public buildings as well. Like Streetview, they are freely navigable.

In Kamaishi, users can explore what pillars and tiles remain of the Municipal War Museum, or the great hall of the Daiichi Junior High School, which served as a shelter and will soon be demolished.

The scenes are strange, sad, sometimes beautiful. In Rikuzentataka's Municipal Kesen Elementary School, flooded by a surge in the Kesen River, children's toys lie scattered in the rubble. On the first floor of the Rikizentakata City Office, where the carcass of a silver car has come to rest, a purple vase sits boldly on a ledge.

On the fourth floor, I stumbled into a room glowing with the afternoon sun and littered with cardboard boxes. Half the table holds blueprints, as if for any other day at the office. On the other half sits a megaphone. 

This interactive approach is more personal than most displays of historical preservation. The experience has more in common with the free movement and spatial immersion of a video game than with any gallery visit. Less precise and didactic than the tight frame of a photograph, the "Memories" project offers a longer, more cluttered vision of the disaster -- a virtual trip to a moment in time and space.

But the impact of "Memories" may be much larger than digitally preserving some of the sites of Iwate if other towns and cities are interested in the same treatment. Google's interactive landscapes could rewrite disaster history -- change how we remember -- the same way an explosion in photography did after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

“Hopefully," one of the project's engineers says in the video, "this will keep our memories from being lost in the sands of time."

Top image: Carlos Barria / Reuters.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.