By Kelsey Ryan
Want to see a Joplin that looks like it was not hit by a tornado in 2011?
On the Street View feature of Google Maps, the neighborhoods in what is now the destruction zone are still there. Trees line the streets. Toys are scattered in yards, and houses and cars are in one piece.
But with Google’s Street View cars in town last week for what normally would have been a routine update of a cityscape, the images of Joplin’s pre-tornado neighborhoods that can be found online will likely disappear — and some already have.
Street View cars have cameras that take images as they roll down public streets, and the images are processed by computer to be integrated into Google Maps, according to Sean Carlson, manager of global communications and public affairs for Google. Online, people can navigate through the digital images.
Residents who have used the service to look at old neighborhoods are eager to know if the images will be archived by Google and remain accessible, but the Globe’s attempts to have the question answered by the company have been unsuccessful.
Allison Riddle, whose family lost its home in the tornado, describes going online and seeing her old neighborhood, family business and schools that were destroyed as “weird.”
Riddle said she and her daughters have taken virtual tours of their old neighborhood, which is just down the street from where they live now. She said they even looked at a giant evergreen tree on Alabama Avenue that her daughters used to see decorated at Christmas.
“We saw our car parked in front, and saw trees and neighborhood homes that are no longer there, and saw memories like the trees in the front yard that the kids used to take pictures in front of on the first day of school,” Riddle said. “The details you forget about you can see on Street View.”
The daughters asked her to go down the street to her mother-in-law’s old store, which also was destroyed.
“We re-created the route from our house to her shop,” Riddle said. “It was eerie. Weird. It was sad. We’re not going to be able to do that anymore. Those will be gone. Our neighbors two doors down worked so hard on their yard, and now their lot is just overgrown, a pile of gravel. When you drive by it’s sad, and you can go on Google Maps and see the way it was when we lived there.”
The ability to go back and see what the actual structures looked like is “over the top incredible,” said Brad Belk, director of the Joplin Museum Complex. He said the old images of Joplin’s neighborhoods in the tornado’s path have significant historical value.
“It’s a testimony to modern technology in allowing us to look into the past,” he said. “What I’ve found out through my years is that the recollections get real fuzzy and muddled..
“Everybody’s going to want to go back to that Sunday morning in the time frame of their minds. So we have somehow got to be able to capture that so we can always return back to that date.”
Pat Nagle, of Joplin, saw the Google car driving in town last week and recognized it from pictures. After the storm, Nagle used the images of what once was to get his bearings. He had taken photos after the storm in many areas that were hardly recognizable.
“Obviously it was such a major change in what the view looked like,” Nagle said. “It would be nice if there were some way that view could be preserved so we could see what it looked like before the tornado, now and in the future.”
GOOGLE DID NOT RESPOND to questions about whether the old street scenes will be available once the website is updated, but the search engine has a feature on which some areas may be viewed using “historical imagery.”