Peering from space using the government's most covert satellites, a little-known spy agency is turning its cameras toward Hurricane Rita and the destruction it is expected to inflict on the Gulf Coast.
Images the agency captured after Katrina struck included a gas rig that vanished from the sea leaving only bubbles, broken levees and a house in seemingly good condition — except it was upside-down.
"And here comes Rita," said Lynne Puetz, who heads the office overseeing North and South America for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
A part of the Defense Department, the agency usually toils behind the scenes to provide the images and analysis of what's happening in other countries, including weapons tests. Among the government's most closely guarded secrets, the quality of pictures from its satellites is believed to far exceed the 1-meter resolution available commercially.
Since the war on terror began, the agency has expanded its mission inside the United States. In the last four weeks, Puetz's Americas Office has been focused heavily on hurricanes.
Before the storms make landfall, government experts assemble images to record what the threatened regions look like pre-squall.
They compile graphics and maps on the whereabouts of hospitals, roads, bridges and other critical facilities for government officials at any level to use — 163 different mapping products in all.
In Rita's case, the agency is inventorying the locations of hazardous material, petroleum refineries and other potentially messy facilities. One of the agency's contractors, the commercial satellite company Space Imaging, collected 4,250 square miles of cloud-free pictures of Houston and Galveston, Texas, on Thursday.
When the storms pass, the imagery experts go to work compiling information for search-and-rescue and damage assessments.
'Stunned' by Katrina damage
Puetz said she's never seen destruction comparable to Katrina's. Parts of the Gulf region look like last year's Asian tsunami; others, the 1993 floods that ravaged huge swaths of the Midwest. With the pictures from above, she can see a clear line where the waves surged. Oceanside, there is nothing left.
"We are used to seeing hurricane aftermaths, and we were stunned," Puetz said.
The inventory of Katrina's destruction continues to grow. Oil spills. Damaged and weakened levees. Missing oil rigs. A house turned upside-down, perfectly intact, but 100 yards from its foundation.
"We are looking at the debris, and we are wondering how in the world we are going to find a place to put it all," Puetz said. "We saw a picture of a place where there had been a gas rig at one point in time, and there are just bubbles now."
Then, there is the ground: coated in a mixture of oil, chemicals and various other toxins. Using sophisticated aerial imaging technology, intelligence analysts can determine the signatures of substances and develop maps and graphics allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to sort out the contamination.
Although the intelligence agency sits in the Washington suburbs, much of the work is being done in the hurricane zone using two humvees — self-contained intelligence analysis units complete with generators, tents, plasma screen monitors, computers and communications equipment.
Called Mobile Integrated Geospatial-Intelligence Systems, or MIGs, they can draw information from U-2 spy planes, Navy P-3 surveillance planes and commercial and classified satellite systems.
One humvee sat at the New Orleans pier, even as Rita roared into the Gulf. Another is en route to Texas. In all, several dozen people affiliated with the agency are in the region, with many more supporting them back at headquarters.
Puetz acknowledges that legal issues have arisen requiring the agency to look at executive orders and other regulations that limit spy agencies activities inside the United States to prevent spying on Americans. For instance, overhead reconnaissance is allowed domestically when it is not directed at specific U.S. citizens or companies.
She said situations are being handled internally by lawyers and policy officials, who are keeping an audit trail.
"We're breaking a lot of new ground here," Puetz said.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists project on secrecy, said in times of emergency the government should mobilize all resources, even agencies focused on foreign intelligence. Although he's normally a critic of the intelligence community, Aftergood said it appears the agency is taking the right steps.
"I think Americans are desperate to see signs of competence in their government, and it's a bit ironic that some of the most useful and farsighted work" is coming from an agency that normally snoops on other countries.
Amid policy debates and the destruction, some moments of levity have arisen. The Canadian Navy sent in ships and divers a week after Katrina.
But Puetz said the Canadians quickly called in an SOS: "We are using restaurant place-mat maps. Can you help us?" they asked.
Her office provided some official maps right away.