One of the Best Books of 2013
The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disasterby Jonathan M. Katz
PEN Literary Award Finalist
On January 12, 2010, the deadliest earthquake in the history of the Western Hemisphere struck the nation least prepared to handle it. Jonathan M. Katz, the only full-time American news correspondent in Haiti, was inside his house when it buckled along with hundreds of thousands of others. In this visceral, authoritative/b>… See more details below
PEN Literary Award Finalist
On January 12, 2010, the deadliest earthquake in the history of the Western Hemisphere struck the nation least prepared to handle it. Jonathan M. Katz, the only full-time American news correspondent in Haiti, was inside his house when it buckled along with hundreds of thousands of others. In this visceral, authoritative first-hand account, Katz chronicles the terror of that day, the devastation visited on ordinary Haitians, and how the world reacted to a nation in need.
More than half of American adults gave money for Haiti, part of a monumental response totaling $16.3 billion in pledges. But three years later the relief effort has foundered. It's most basic promises-to build safer housing for the homeless, alleviate severe poverty, and strengthen Haiti to face future disasters-remain unfulfilled.
The Big Truck That Went By presents a sharp critique of international aid that defies today's conventional wisdom; that the way wealthy countries give aid makes poor countries seem irredeemably hopeless, while trapping millions in cycles of privation and catastrophe. Katz follows the money to uncover startling truths about how good intentions go wrong, and what can be done to make aid "smarter."
With coverage of Bill Clinton, who came to help lead the reconstruction; movie-star aid worker Sean Penn; Wyclef Jean; Haiti's leaders and people alike, Katz weaves a complex, darkly funny, and unexpected portrait of one of the world's most fascinating countries. The Big Truck That Went By is not only a definitive account of Haiti's earthquake, but of the world we live in today.
One of the Best Books of 2013
Gripping… forces a confrontation with the hubris and double standards of international aid...a critique made more powerful by the perspective it includes. Katz combines the knowledge of Haiti he built over 3-1/2 years working there with his understanding of outsiders' clichés about poor, impoverished countries.
Katz's blow-by-blow reportage of the quake and its immediate aftermath is riveting. The book's deeper structure offers a concise and accurate history of Haiti from its revolutionary origins to the present day, and a clear and cogent analysis of how and why the massive, expensive effort to rebuild the country after the quake has, for the most part, failed… required reading for anyone who wants to understand Haiti.
Katz eloquently blends personal anecdotes and Haitian history with in-depth reportage to show how one catastrophe led to so many more, and how, three years later, Haiti has barely moved forward… One hopes that the policymakers involved in helping Haiti read this book and take it to heart.
Katz offers a frank insider's guide to Haiti.
Some of the scenes in Katz's book rival anything that you would find in Graham Greene's classic 1966 novel about Haiti, 'The Comedians.'
Compelling ...damning ...wry...This is a book without heroes -- not Bill Clinton, the United Nations special envoy to Haiti; not Sean Penn, the Hollywood star who runs a huge camp there; not René Préval, the reclusive president; and certainly not the international community and its competing, self-aggrandising NGOs, which got so much so wrong.
Katz succeeds in transporting the reader straight into the midst of the events he describes so eloquently, without attempting to gloss over the harshness of everyday life in Haiti, both before and after the earthquake. He provides excellent background information on the country and its society, and his arguments are balanced and nuanced.
A heartbreaking book.
Wise, deeply reported… both a primer on how and why reconstructions fail, and an indictment of the benign paternalism that motivates donors, developers, and other do-gooders…a stark, compelling first-person account.
Beautifully-written, brave, and riveting, The Big Truck That Went By tells the devastating story of the post-earthquake reconstruction effort in Haiti. Weaving together his personal experiences with the knowledge gained from his intensive investigative report, Katz offers us an autopsy of a global relief effort gone wrong. But the book also offers us a moving portrait of the courage, humor, and vision of the Haitians he worked with, offering a glimpse of the possibilities for a different future. Anyone seeking to understand Haiti's current situation, as well as the broader impasses of our current model of aid, should read this book.
With lucidity and great humanity, Jonathan Katz has written THE book on Haiti's devastating earthquake and its bungled reconstruction. For anyone who wants to know why the "international community" can't fix anything anymore, but who still hope to find solutions to global problems, this book is a must-read.
A brilliant piece of writing… the best description of living through the Haiti quake I've read anywhere.
Katz is a great storyteller who enmeshes the reader in a lively web of history, incident, and examples of humanity pushing through disaster, hard luck, iniquity, and triumph to muck it up all over again.
The horror of the catastrophic Haitian earthquake of 2010, the adrenaline rush of being a reporter in the middle of dramatic events, the frustration of watching local politicians and poorly informed outsiders combine to paralyze the recovery effort, and the joy of finding love in the midst of the ruins: it's all here. Katz, the only American journalist on the scene when the earthquake struck, gives us unique insights into the plight of a close neighbor whose fate is vitally connected to our own.
Jonathan M. Katz has a passion for the truth. He has shown respect for the people of Haiti by seeking that truth throughout the earthquake and the aftermath... This is an important book, and a page-turner!
With every page of Jonathan Katz's book I cringed, grr'ed and couldn't wait to turn for the next revelation. Hubris, America! Thought we could wave a magic wand and save Haiti? Non, merci. Bravo to Katz for telling the real story.
Jonathan Katz's strength is his unique combination of heart, history and solid reporting, brilliantly married in The Big Truck That Went By. Readers experience the country through his personal roadmap, one that is both sympathetic and yet sharply critical of all that could have gone right, but didn't.
From the exploits of international stars like Sean Penn and native son Wyclef Jean of the Fugees, to the muddled planning that can result in unmitigated disasters like the cholera outbreak caused by insufficiently vaccinated Nepalese peacekeepers, Katz paints a thoroughly researched picture of (mostly) good intentions gone astray, leaving readers suspended somewhere between fragile hope and outright fury.
Excellent…will reward any sensitive, curious reader.
On Jan. 12, AP correspondent Jonathan Katz was about to leave Haiti after two years. He survived through sheer luck, camped out in the courtyard of an intact hotel, and stayed to record the impact of the disaster. His new book The Big Truck That Went By is the single most comprehensive and understandable account of what happened, and why.
Katz makes an empathic, likable guide through this grim catalog of how help can harm… His agile, eye-opening firsthand account, engaging persona and sharp criticisms may help reform future relief efforts.
[Katz's] on-the-ground experience makes for a rich account.
Katz brings an on-the-ground flavor to his depiction of events that is more vivid than those in the more ponderous tomes published in the wake of the calamity… His minute dissection of the failure of most of the promised aid and the misdirection of much of what did arrive is a valuable contribution to understanding how the international community should respond to such crises in the future.
Katz presents an engaging first-person account of the quake and the first year of the international response that followed.
Offers a compelling account that is alternately comic and tragic.
A captivating look at Haiti's history, people and politics ... a great primer on the challenges of reporting the news in a disaster zone.
The despair and love of Haiti in one earthquake story.
Essential... Katz exposes the machinations behind the international reconstruction effort, weaving in a firsthand account of the day of the disaster.
Ultimately, Katz's book is both an eloquent and heartbreaking reminder that it takes much more than good intentions to end a humanitarian crisis.
[Katz] is able somehow to create this story that has intense drama even when there's a press conference with Bill Clinton and some rich donors about how to get money to Haiti ... It's an amazing story of disaster and survival, and then government and bureaucracy, that I'm having trouble thinking of a comparison to ... Just buy it and talk about it with people.
Julian Fantino, Canada's minister in charge of the Canadian International Development Agency, recently wondered why Haiti, with so many unemployed, is covered in garbage--despite all the aid money that has poured into the country since its devastating 2010 earthquake. He would probably learn a lot from this book.
The best book yet on the earthquake and its on-the-ground consequences.
A vivid and disturbing account of how international aid donors, the United Nations and celebrity do-gooders tripped over themselves to help [after the Haitian earthquake] but ended up doing more harm than good.
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Read an Excerpt
The Big Truck that Went By
How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster
By Jonathan M. Katz
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Jonathan M. Katz
All rights reserved.
THE PHONE WAS NEXT TO ME ON THE BED, NOT RINGING. IGNORING this was proving difficult. It was a hot, slow January afternoon, just past 4:45 P.M., in the hills above Port-au-Prince, and the newsless pall that fell between Christmas and Carnival offered few distractions. AP House, my bureau and residence in Pétionville, was quiet. My lone housemate, the staff photographer, was on home leave in Spain. Evens, our main translator and driver, was finishing some phone calls in the large first-floor office space before heading down the hill to his stepfamily's place, where he'd been living since his divorce. The only other person around was Widler, a hardworking, taciturn Haitian mechanic, who was outside replacing the brake pads under my hopeless, thirteen-year-old Geo Tracker. I was upstairs in my room.
The call I was waiting for was from someone at AP telling me that I could ship out. After two and a half years of disasters and riots — of personal and political intrigue, money-pit cars, and not one utility I could count on — I was done with Haiti. My friends were great. The house was terrific: a two-story with creek-stone walls on the first floor and a big terrace, set back among hibiscuses and lime trees beside the Hotel Villa Creole. From the slum rising behind it, the sounds of children playing filled the day, and I'd fall asleep to hand-clap hallelujahs from the church at night. But AP had long talked about getting rid of the house, and my foreign friends, done with their two-year rotations, had mostly shipped off to the next crisis. AP's international editor in New York told me I could pick my next position, so long as it was Kabul, Lagos, or Baghdad. I chose Afghanistan. It sounded like a good place for a break. All that was left was for the phone to ring.
To kill time, I played online trivia against a friend in the States. I was sitting on my bed in gray boxers and a sleeveless undershirt, sweating out the last of the Tuesday heat. We started a new game: Name a human body part for every letter of the alphabet, in a minute or less.
"I didn't know jejunum was spelled like that," I typed into the chat window as time ran out. "You win."
I heard a loud rumbling outside. I looked out the window, but the yard was empty. Must be a water truck, I thought.
Then the bed started to vibrate. I heard plates rattling in the kitchen downstairs. The wooden mask from Mexico I'd always worried might fall started to sway. Medicine bottles, suntan lotion, and bug spray shimmied on the round black table I always left cluttered because I'd never counted on staying in Haiti long enough to need a dresser.
There had been a rumble on the island before, a little one, when I was the correspondent on its other side in the Dominican Republic. This couldn't be one of those. I stood up from the bed, bare feet against the wooden floor, but felt nothing. The roar outside got louder. Then the floor started to move. The vibrations got thicker. Christ, maybe it is one of those, I thought. What do you do in one of those? A doorway. Something about a doorway. I walked toward it but for some reason kept going into the hall. Then everything shoved.
I lowered myself, or maybe I fell. Then a shove came the other way. Then another, and another. Suddenly the house was an airplane in a storm. Everything was falling. A framed photo from Jerusalem barely missed my head and cracked on the floor. Everything was flowing now, blasts coming through the walls, waves through the floor. There was a contest between the up and down and the side to side. Who was going to shove harder, the up and down or the side to side? They were both winning. There was a mechanical roar.
I answered: "No no no no no no no no no...."
The world turned gray and everything blurred, things falling long after there should have been nothing left to fall. The horizontal slats of the crank-out windows shot from their frames and burst across the floor. I watched the front wall crack in two, daylight pushing through the throbbing dust. With every heartbeat, the floor disappeared from under me and reappeared and was gone.
It was going to fall. I was going to fall.
I heard a sound like trees being mowed down in a forest. It was the house next door collapsing. Seconds to go. I thought about running through the shattered glass and tumbling down the stairs, but there was no time. When the second floor went, I could either be under it or ride down on top of it. I went with on top and braced for the pain.
I MOVED TO HAITI IN 2007 from the Dominican Republic on what was billed as a temporary transfer by AP. As the bus crossed into the desert that stretches from the Dominican southwest into Haiti, I opened an old New Yorker. My eyes landed on a short story by Junot Díaz, a Dominican American writer. As we neared the Haitian border, I flipped to the next. It was by Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian American. That felt like a good sign.
It was raining an hour later when the yellow coach bus pulled into Port-au-Prince. We had left the Dominican capital, with its tutti frutti–colored high-rises and oceanfront boulevard, for a city of drab, gray cinder-block shacks. In place of Burger Kings and walk-in sandwich shops I saw open-air markets with women crouching on blankets and shouting to customers, or gritting pipes in their teeth. People walked up and down hills, some carrying impossible loads on their heads or stuffing themselves into the psychedelically painted pickup truck taxis I'd learn were called taptaps. Blue-helmeted United Nations soldiers splashed through a puddle in their white armored personnel carrier. I took a picture.
The next morning, I walked into the kitchen of my new house to find a large Haitian man pumping water from a blue jug. He turned, looked down at me, and flashed a 100-watt grin.
Evens Sanon is what journalists call a fixer — sort of a combination tour guide, driver, translator, interview arranger, culture explainer, and bodyguard. This brave, invisible fraternity of misfits working from Fallujah to Michoacán make covering the news possible. Six foot five and three hundred pounds, with a smile that could get him out of anything, Evens was born for the role. His Kreyòl had the same New York growl as his English, each syllable ground into a smooth rumble. His clothes were loose too: Evens preferred wearing polo shirts a size bigger than his ample frame. It was a fashion tic he'd picked up as a teenager in Queens in the 1980s, where he once took two bullets in the back at a party. Evens came back to Haiti in 1993, arriving just in time for a U.S. invasion to kick out a junta that had seized power in a coup. Suddenly he was surrounded by Americans all over again. He took a job with Kellogg Brown & Root, translating Kreyòl into jarhead for the occupying Marines. When they left, he met a journalist and found his calling: driving crazy white boys into the worst places in town, at the worst possible times, and getting information. When the next coup took place, in 2004, Evens landed a full-time job with the Associated Press. Three years later, he landed me.
I depended on Evens for everything. He got the call when there was trouble or I needed advice, and seven times out of ten he had the answer. After the broken-down jalopy I inherited from AP died in a flood, he was my only reliable transportation, driving me to murder scenes in the slums of Fontamara and to meet dates at the Lebanese restaurant in Pétionville. When I finally gave up on the company shelling out for a new car, Even found the broker who sold me the 1997 Geo Tracker for $6,000 cash, plus bribe. The car wasn't worth a tenth of that — CARFAX listed it as "salvage" — but the broker wasn't gouging me by much. Unwanted things have a way of finding value in Port-au-Prince.
Evens and I spent our time together, went into the shit together, laughed together, and frustrated the hell out of one another. Our relationship reminded me of a line from a bluegrass album: There wasn't a thing he wouldn't do for me, there wasn't a thing I wouldn't do for him, and that's how we went through Haiti, doing nothing for each other. For a few weeks after I talked to the international editor in New York, I resisted telling Evens I had volunteered for Afghanistan. But he sensed the end was coming, as he always did when trouble was near. One evening we finally had a long talk in the driveway of AP House. He asked if I thought the next correspondent would keep him on staff. I assured him the new person would. We both knew I had no idea.
PINK LIGHT PUSHED THROUGH the widening crack in the wall. Nuggets of glass skittered across the galloping floor. As the house crumbled around me, I pictured myself with my back broken in the basement. When I wake up, I thought, I'd have to find a phone, I must find a —
And then it stopped. I could hear my heart whaling against the walls of my chest. Was it over? Was the floor going to hold? I was still there. How was I still there?
I did the only thing I could think of. I shouted for Evens. I expected no reply. There was nothing. Then, through the dust, I heard a bellow back. It got louder, approaching.
"I'm here, man. Are you OK?"
I almost laughed and cried. "I'm OK! Are you OK?!" I shouted.
"I'm OK!" he echoed. "We've got to get out of the house." Good idea. But the top step was littered with drywall and glass. Below that was a billowing sea of white dust. I remembered that I wasn't wearing shoes. Or pants. I couldn't see past the top step. I tried to shout but it came out as coughing. I could hardly breathe.
"Are the stairs there?" I forced out. "Can you see them?"
"I see them, they're there. Let's go."
Evens could make out only the bottom stairs. If the middle had fallen, I reasoned, it would still be a shorter fall than leaping from the second floor. I closed my eyes and entered the fog. The stairs wobbled, but held. Evens was at the bottom. I reached him, he turned, and we ran. The first floor was a ruin, rocks blasted out from the forward wall, another wall fallen on the desk where Evens had been sitting. The front door of glass and iron had fallen in like a Chinese screen. "Can't go right," Evens yelled — there were rocks jamming our usual exit to the driveway. We ran to the backyard. I'd taken this course on hundreds of jogs before: around the back wall of the house (now cracked open), under the clothesline (T-shirts scattered on the ground), toward the retaining walls on the far side of the backyard (now collapsed), to the back end of the circular driveway, where we stopped to catch our breath.
Evens pointed up to the ridge above our house, where the neighborhood of cinder-block houses had stood. In its place was a long gray cloud stretching past sight. The night before, a restless Monday, I'd stayed up to record the singing and drums from the church. Now the voices coming from that direction made another sound — a sound I knew only from Haiti. It exits the lips with a consonant tone, a childlike note on top as the voice behind it breaks into a squeak or a near cry. Then comes an element of negation, almost a "no" but unarticulated, a denial, a sound of the voice pushing back against itself. Then it explodes like a crack of thunder, spreading like oil through the air: whoah, whoooah. The chorus grows, pausing for breaths as each pass grows louder. I had only ever heard Haitian women make that sound and only ever standing before the worst thing in the world: the collapse of a home, the death of a child. Now it came from everywhere. It resounded from the dust cloud, along the ridge, and up from the ravine. The sound echoed across Pétionville, coming down from the hills, up from below, and from the direction of the hotel. It seemed to come from inside.
We stood and listened. Evens looked at me. "Thousands of people are dead," he said.
I had to call in the story. I didn't expect the cell phone towers to have survived, but maybe the landline at the Hotel Villa Creole, a hundred feet away, had. I ran up the driveway, which climbed a small hill and connected to the hotel. Part of its retaining wall had blasted out, and I climbed over the rocks on my hands and feet. The roof had caved in, and dust poured out of the hotel's entryway. No use looking in there. I shouted at the survivors milling, dazed, in the parking lot: "Potab genye?" "Do you have a cell phone?" "¿Tienes teléfono?" "Avez-vous un téléphone?"
A bald white man came stumbling out of the hotel, talking on a gray BlackBerry. I must have made quite a sight running up to him in boxers and a sleeveless undershirt, still clutching my gray-metal laptop. I told him I was a reporter. To my shock, he nodded, uttered something to the person on the line, and handed it to me. His pale hands quivered as they pulled away. I had never used a BlackBerry before. Where were the numbers? On the left.
Miraculously, it rang.
"AP, this is Danica," answered the line editor in the AP's Caribbean bureau, in San Juan.
"Danica, it's Jonathan."
She started to say something — after years of cutbacks and attrition we were two of just five staffers in a region that used to have dozens, so we often bantered on the phone.
"Danica," I interrupted, "I have an urgent. I don't know how long this phone is going to last. File the urgent while I'm talking to you, OK? Don't wait."
"OK," she responded, confused. "OK — go ahead."
I'd used the wrong word. AP has breaking news down to a science, and there's a formula to follow: A big story gets a one-line news alert, then a 150-word version marked "urgent," then progressively longer versions roll out. But I couldn't remember any of that. I was just staring, transfixed, at the massive crack bisecting the front of the house I had just escaped, as shouts and prayers echoed around me.
"Jonathan?" Danica asked. Her keyboard clacked in the background.
I took a hard breath. "There has been an earthquake in Port-au-Prince."
AN HOUR LATER, WE WERE IN EVENS' beat-up Nissan Pathfinder, scaling concrete and rock up the side road that led from the Villa Creole to the Pétionville grid. At the top of the hill, where the side street met the main road, a seven-story doctors' office, apartment building, and day school for children with disabilities had stood. A backhoe from the state-run construction company was pawing at the pile that remained, trying to reach those trapped inside. A man in a construction hat ran out to wave us into another lane, but there was nowhere to go. The earthquake had struck at rush hour. Cars were coming and going in every direction, including perpendicularly. People on foot carried their injured through the gaps.
Port-au-Prince was built between mountains and the sea. Pétionville is partway up one of those mountains, and just four steep roads connect it with the central capital, each dropping a thousand vertical feet over fewer than five miles: Avenue John Brown, Canapé-Vert, Route de Frères, and Route de Delmas. Even on an ordinary day at nearly 6 P.M., every road down the mountain would be an insane matrix of nongovernmental organization (NGO) staff and Haitian businessmen in big SUVs, their cooks and housekeepers in bumper-dragging sedans and taptaps, herds of goats, impromptu police checkpoints, and stalled water trucks. Now there was hell. Evens swerved left and gunned the engine over a concrete slab, but we were stopped by another wall of cars and pedestrians. Everyone, it seemed, was trying to get somewhere else.
An AP bureau chief had nicknamed Evens' previous car "the Beast," so we called this one "the Beast II." It rattled and hummed up the Port-au-Prince mountains, Evens' seat stunned into a permanent over-recline. With his size-13 Nikes on the gas pedal, it could move pretty fast, especially when there was shooting, after a couple beers, or both. We'd have serviced and gassed it if a hurricane or riot had been imminent, but there's no warning before an earthquake. The gas needle hovered just above empty. The workers at all the nearest gas stations had already shut off the flow to prevent explosions, then left. But we had to push on somehow, to get down the hill if we were going to see how the capital had fared.
Excerpted from The Big Truck that Went By by Jonathan M. Katz. Copyright © 2013 Jonathan M. Katz. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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This was a facinating book. Surely makes you think where you want to donate your hard earned #20.00 Certainly well researched. He knows his material
I often wondered why Hati was the way it was despite all the money poured into rebuilding the country. The author does an excellent job of explaining what happened and why and where it all went wrong. The intersection of politics, self interest, culture and other factors that he observed goes a long way to explaining what happened and recommendatoins on how to avoid it in the future. Well written and enlightening