Friday, September 02, 2005

Star Trek and New Orleans: What Bettering Ourselves Really Means

by William S. Kowinski

In the Star Trek universe, New Orleans is a vibrant city in the 24th century with strong ties to its past. Captain Benjamin Sisko, commander of Deep Space 9, grew up there, and for his first few weeks at Starfleet Academy, beamed back for dinner with his family there every night. Viewers saw him return there several times over the years to the Creole restaurant of his father, Joseph Sisko. The elder Sisko was a symbol not only of the continuity of family through the generations—from Joseph to Benjamin to Jake Sisko, Star Trek’s first three generation family—but his restaurant was a symbol of old values and culture that were still important, still necessary in the Star Trek future.

We are reminded of this not only by the recent death of Brock Peters, who played Joseph Sisko, but most of all by the incredible devastation in New Orleans during the last week of August 2005. At this moment, officials are trying to completely evacuate the city. They estimate it will be weeks or months before some of its residents can safely return (others have no homes left to return to), and years before the city can rebuild. Huge amounts of toxic industrial waste carried in the floodwaters may be very difficult and very expensive to eliminate. There is even some question whether the city will be habitable in the foreseeable future, and some have suggested it be totally abandoned.

Many people around the world are shocked by what the media is reporting about New Orleans and the other areas in several states where the powerful hurricane Katrina caused major destruction and death. The sheer power of the storm leveled entire areas of the cities it hit directly with the full force of its winds. Deaths were in the hundreds, and the counting has only begun.

For awhile, it seemed New Orleans was spared the worst because Katrina was not at its full strength and didn’t hit the whole city directly. But some of the levees gave way, that held back flood waters from the nearby lake as well as the ocean and the Mississippi river, and some 80% of the city was seriously flooded.

There had been enough warning for many people to leave the city before the hurricane struck. But many people—perhaps several hundred thousands---could not leave, because they couldn’t afford fares or didn’t have cars, and no provisions were made for evacuating them. Hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities were not all evacuated, and there was no provision to evacuate people with physical disabilities and frail older people who lived in private homes.

By August 31 and September 1, the enormity of the catastrophe was becoming clearer. Hundreds and perhaps thousands had died in New Orleans by then. Those stranded in the city were without safe or adequate shelter, food and water. Toxic chemicals and human remains in the flood waters threatened outbreaks of serious diseases. Government response was slow, and planning had obviously been seriously inadequate. Anger, desperation, confusion and violence in New Orleans were reported and seen on television all over the world.

Many countries, and many organizations and individuals around the world offered assistance, and there are no doubt Star Trek organizations and Star Trek fans among them. The stories of individual courage, generosity and empathy are just beginning to be told. But a basic humanitarian impulse is not the only emotion likely to be evoked among Star Trek fans by this catastrophe.

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