Carmageddon: how some roadworks could bring LA to a halt

Los Angeles's citizens love their cars and their freeways. How will they cope without access to them

They're calling it Carmageddon. Only in Los Angeles, perhaps, could the prospect of a weekend road closure for improvement works invoke such alarmist warnings of impending doom. The LAPD even recruited some unlikely traffic wardens in the shape of Lady Gaga, Ashton Kutcher and Kim Kardashian - appealing to the celebrities to spread the word on Twitter to their millions of followers. Leave town now. Stay home. On no account venture outside. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Why such a fuss about a few roadworks, you might ask? These aren't any ordinary roadworks. This is LA's 405 freeway, its main west side traffic artery, which is clogged by over half a million cars over the course of an average weekend. In a city that lives, breathes and dies by the car - no wonder the prospect of a 53-hour shutdown is depicted in these apocalytic terms.

So this weekend - officials are warning of gridlock - or a "potential paralysis moment". Fifty mile tailbacks, alternative surface routes completely jammed. They're preparing for the worst: hospitals on standby, fire crews deployed around the 13 most likely flashpoints. And there's more: special apps for smartphones, websites counting down the hours, the promise of free bus rides, though that's hardly likely to tempt the starried ranks of Beverly Hills.

The city has tried to tamper with it's freeways before - to its peril. Back in 1976 the transport authorities decided to impose a carpooling rule, reserving space for cars with one passenger or more. Unfortunately, the measure designed to reduce traffic ended up causing mayhem - deliberately so.

"We are prepared to endure considerable public outcry in order to pry John Q Public out of his car," insisted the head of Caltrans. (Loving that Q, by the way). Carpooling did, in the end, become part of life - but nothing would prise Mr Public from his precious motor vehicle. Entire books have been written to LA's love for its major roads, from the architecture to their soaring views. The essayist Joan Didion found meaning in their physical connectedness across a city with such a sprawling diaspora: freeways, she wrote, are "the only secular communion Los Angeles has." The critic David Brodsly went even further - describing the South California freeway as "the cathedral of its time and place". The car, then, as place of worship: traffic jams as a neccessary catharsis for the soul.

They've even become the stuff of television drama - not the scripted movies of Hollywood but the insta-thrill of the police chase - gleeful local news networks switching live to capture the latest fugitive motorist, with officers in hot pursuit. The all-seeing eye in the sky misses nothing, not your morning commute, nor your snuff-movie-style death-by-speeding-cop.

But this weekend, the giant neon signs are already flashing their warning, from hundreds of miles away: EXPECT BIG DELAYS. You could always walk - or buy a bike. But this is a stubborn place, where people drive two blocks to go spinning at the gym, where cars are left idling outside coffee shops while drivers queue impatiently for their double decaff non-fat soya macchiato. As the Carmaggedon website puts it - it's The Price You Pay to Live in LA. It's going to be a long, hot, couple of days.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News

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Why orphanages are not the answer to Hurricane Matthew’s devastation

For this year’s New Statesman Christmas charity campaign, we are supporting the work of Lumos in Haiti.

Two weeks after Hurricane Matthew made landfall, I found myself driving along the Haitian coast, 40 miles north of Port-Au-Prince. The storm had barely impacted this part of the country when it hit in early October. There were a few days of rain, some felled trees, and locals complained that water ate away at the beachfront. But nothing remotely comparable to the devastation in other parts of the country.

In an odd turn of events, I found myself traveling in this relatively untouched central zone with two young American women – missionaries. “And there’s an orphanage,” one pointed out as we zoomed by. “And here’s another one too,” the other said, just on the opposite side of the road. They counted them like a memory game: remembering where they’ve popped up, their names, how many children are housed within their walls.

The young women spoke of the neglect and abuse they witnessed in some of them. No matter how “good” an orphanage might be, it simply cannot replace the love, attention, and security provided by a safe family environment. “And it doesn’t matter if the kids look OK. It doesn’t mean anything. You know it’s not right,” the younger of the two quietly says. She was a volunteer in one that cared for 50 children at the time. “Most people who live and work in Haiti don’t like the orphanage system. We keep getting them because of Americans who want to help but don’t live in Haiti.”

In the quick mile of road that we covered, they identified nine orphanages. Two of the orphanages housed less than 10 children, six averaged around 40 children. One housed over 200 children. All but one was set up in the months following the 2010 earthquake. There was a significant increase in the number of orphanages across Haiti in the next four years.

The institutionalisation of children is still the go-to response of many Western donors. US funders have a quick and relatively cheap access to Haiti, not to mention an established history of support to orphanages with nearly seven years’ investment since the earthquake. Many local actors and organisations, international NGO staff, and others in the child protection sphere share the same fear: that many new orphanages will crop up post-hurricane.

But it’s not just orphanage donors who do not understand the true impact of their interventions. Humanitarian relief workers have a gap in institutional knowledge when it comes to best practice in emergency response for this particular vulnerable group of children.

Nearly two months on from the hurricane, rain and flooding continue to hamper humanitarian relief efforts in the south of Haiti. Over 806,000 people still need urgent food assistance and 750,000 safe water, and 220,000 boys and girls remain are at risk, requiring immediate protection. But what about the virtually invisible and uncounted children in orphanages? These children cannot line up to receive the food aid at relief agency distribution centers. They cannot take advantage of child-friendly spaces or other humanitarian services.

We must find a way of reaching children in orphanages in an emergency, and bring their situations up to an acceptable standard of care. They have the right to clean water, food, medical attention, education, and safe shelter – like all other children. But therein lies the catch: orphanages cannot just be rehabilitated into perceived best options for vulnerable families. A balance must be struck to care for institutionalised children in the interim, until family tracing and reunification can occur. Simultaneously, families must be strengthened so that they do not see orphanages as the only option for their children.

We know that nine orphanages per mile does not equal a good emergency response. Housing children along an isolated strip of road segregates them from their families and communities, and violates their best interests and their human rights.

Since I visited Haiti last, Lumos, in partnership with the Haitian government and local partners, has documented over 1,400 children in 20 orphanages in the hurricane-affected South. Vulnerable families have been strengthened in efforts to avoid separation, and we are working with the government to ensure that no new children are placed in orphanages.

We are all worried that, without concerted messaging, efforts to raise awareness among donors, relief agencies, and families, the orphanage boom will happen again in Haiti. And though Haiti is susceptible to natural disaster, its families and children shouldn’t have to be. In seven years we cannot find ourselves repeating the same sorry mantra: “and there’s another orphanage, and another, and another. . .”

Jamie Vernaelde is a researcher with Lumos, based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @jmvernaelde

This December, the New Statesman is joining with Lumos to raise money to help institutionalised children in Haiti return to family life. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, funds are needed to help those who have become separated from their families. Please consider pledging your support at http://bit.ly/lumosns

Thanks to Lumos’s 100 per cent pledge, every penny of your donation goes straight to the programme. For more information, see: http://wearelumos.org