(TOKYO) -- In the early hours after the tsunami hit northeast Japan last year, Google launched a Person Finder site that helped reconnect families and loved ones in the most devastated regions.
Months later, the web giant dispatched its street view cars -- 15 cameras mounted on each -- to document the disaster zone in a 360-degree view.
Now, nearly two years later, Google is harnessing its technology once again to launch a unique digital archive project that gives users a virtual tour of buildings damaged by the waves.
The “Memories for the Future” site utilizes technology behind Google Business Photos, typically used by restaurants and retail stores to give customers an interactive tour. This time, it is being used to document more than 30 buildings in the coastal cities of Rikuzentakata, Kamaishi, Ofunato and Namie. The panoramic images allow users to walk through a gutted city office, where smashed cars still remain, surrounded by scraps of metal and wood.
“We have been trying to find ways using the power of technology to help communities recover and help them tell stories,” said Kei Kawai, product manager at Google. “Our hope is that we can provide tools to let other people know what it’s like to be in the region now.”
The idea for the project came last month as city leaders debated the fate of their most devastated buildings. Many residents had called for preservation, arguing the structures should prove as a constant reminder of the tragedy, while others pushed to tear them down, advocating a new start.
Kawai said most buildings documented so far were set to be demolished in a few months, so Google had to act quickly. With the help of government officials, employees were given access to take photos inside the structures, including those in the restricted nuclear zone.
They captured more than three dozen buildings in a few weeks.
Kawai hopes to add five additional cities to the project by the end of the year and says the site could serve as an example of how Google responds to future disasters.
“We are still creating a template on how to assist in longer term recovery,” he said. “How to assist in keeping the record, and archiving the memories of the region.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio