What We Do in Their Wake: A Guest Post by Jonathan Katz

Dear Reader,

Jonathan M. Katz’s first book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster is what the Discover selection committee  calls “1 AM reading”- an incredibly compelling narrative worth staying up all night to finish.  We’re turning our first post of the new year over to the former AP correspondent who was the only full-time American Reporter on the ground when an earthquake devastated Haiti in January, 2010.

“Earthquakes, it can’t be said enough, are all about location. When one hits, all that matters is where you are in relation to where it struck, and where in turn your position is in relation to everything around you. Many who’ve never been in a big one imagine that, if they found themselves in the wrong place when the ground started to move—under a heavy concrete roof, next to a brittle wall, in Port-au-Prince, 2010—they would just run somewhere else. What they don’t realize is that not only, for all intents and purposes, has “somewhere else” ceased to be, but that there is very likely no longer a ground to run on. You are where you are, and that’s all you are.

 An equally stark irony follows. One soon realizes that, in the long run, every location is the wrong one. The dangerous place is existence itself; that no matter where we are, there is a big truck hurtling toward us all. And that all we can do is get ready, wherever our particular point-locale might be. This can be sobering, or depressing, or liberating if you prefer. But it’s undeniable. The story of the earthquake that ravaged southern Haiti on January 12, 2010, is not just the tale of one radiating coordinate on the Cartesian plot. That time it happened mainly to them, yes, but as those of us who happened to be stuck within an S-wave’s reach of the epicenter that day could tell you, in the collapse of so many walls, them revealed itself in an instant to be a nothing more than a thinly disguised variant of us.

 I’m guilty as anyone, when hearing about the latest far-flung terror, in Tokyo, Tampico, or Gaza, of shrugging and moving on as if I wasn’t implicated myself. Then the reminders come. The most recent struck in late October when that Halloween prank of a late-season extra-tropical storm-slash-blizzard, Sandy, left a hundred-plus dead, and $82 billion in losses estimated by the states. With it went the fantasy that the most populous region of the world’s most powerful country might somehow be out of nature’s reach. And other myths followed as well. The American Red Cross proved to be as opaque and unaccountable on its own territory as it was in Haiti’s, with $170 million raised in storm survivors’ names, and spotty explanation at best of how those funds were being spent.

 Other parallels were too numerous to count. In Haiti, calls for better construction and the enforcement of building codes went ignored. On the East Coast, even after Sandy shut down the subway, plunged millions into darkness, and destroyed scores of homes, Americans have shown themselves equally reluctant to take the steps needed to prepare for next time. Planners struggle to gain support for the billions needed for an adequate seawall, risking the loss of trillions in some inevitable flood. The heavy lifting needed to mitigate the ravages of global warming down the road, meanwhile, remain completely off the table. We plan instead, as they say in Santo Domingo, to lock the door after the house gets robbed. Meanwhile we cling to our old disaster-movie fantasies that looting, disease, and social meltdown will follow the disaster—dangerous falsehoods that undermine our ability to maximize the great communal efforts that are much more likely to come. Our instinct is to help, but we seldom help well, and it’s even less often that we really ask how to do better, next time, when it happens to even more of us.

That’s why, when we dismiss a place as being “far off”—even a place like Haiti, that sits closer to New York than New York is to Denver—or however else divide the world into “us” and “them,” the greatest disservice is to ourselves. Misfortunes strike every day, and in a changing, warming, overcrowding world, those like Sandy and the 2010 Haiti quake are likely to come faster, stronger, and more frequently than before. What we do in their wake will add to one big story that must be told and told again, as we learn from one another, here and now.”

Jonathan Katz

Cheers, Miwa


Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.