The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster

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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.

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The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
One of the Best Books of 2013 —Slate

One of the Best Nonfiction Books of 2013 —Kirkus Reviews

One of the 15 Best Nonfiction Books of 2013 —The Christian Science Monitor

One of the 20 Best Nonfiction Books of 2013 —

“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.”—The Nation

“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.”—Associated Press

“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.”—The Christian Science Monitor

“Katz offers a frank insider’s guide to Haiti.”—The Financial Times

"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.'"—The Seattle Times

"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."—Times of London

“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.”—The Boston Globe

“A heartbreaking book.”—The Huffington Post

“A top-notch account of Haiti's recent history, including the January 2010 earthquake, from the only American reporter stationed in the country at the time …An eye-opening, trailblazing exposé.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“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.”—Justin Peters, Columbia Journalism Review

“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." —Laurent Dubois, author of Haiti: The Aftershocks of History

"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." —Jon Lee Anderson, bestselling author of Che Guevera: a Revolutionary Life

“A brilliant piece of writing… the best description of living through the Haiti quake I’ve read anywhere.” —Jonathan Alter

“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 judges of the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award

 “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.”—Jeremy Popkin, author of You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery

" 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!" —Mark Doyle, BBC correspondent

"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." —Laurie Garrett, author of I Heard the Sirens Scream

“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.”  —Kathie Klarreich, author of Madame Dread: A tale of Love, Vodou and Civil Strife in Haiti

“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.”—The Montreal Gazette

“Excellent…will reward any sensitive, curious reader.”—The Dallas Morning News

“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.”—The Tyee

“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.”—The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“[Katz’s] on-the-ground experience makes for a rich account.”—The San Francisco Chronicle

“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.”—The Miami Herald

“Katz presents an engaging first-person account of the quake and the first year of the international response that followed.”—Reason magazine

“Offers a compelling account that is alternately comic and tragic.”—The Louisville Courier-Journal

“Katz was the only American reporter on the ground when the devastating earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010…Debunks the assumption that a disaster leads to social disintegration or rioting and observes how media sensationalism prompted unwise giving.”—Publishers Weekly

"A captivating look at Haiti’s history, people and politics ... a great primer on the challenges of reporting the news in a disaster zone."—June Thomas, Slate book critic

"The despair and love of Haiti in one earthquake story."—The New York Times Magazine

"Essential... Katz exposes the machinations behind the international reconstruction effort, weaving in a firsthand account of the day of the disaster."—Los Angeles Review of Books

"Ultimately, Katz’s book is both an eloquent and heartbreaking reminder that it takes much more than good intentions to end a humanitarian crisis."—The Financialist

"[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."—David Weigel, Slate

"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."—Michael Petrou, Maclean's

"The best book yet on the earthquake and its on-the-ground consequences."—Haiti Support Group

“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." —Times Literary Supplement

Publishers Weekly
Former AP correspondent, now editor, Katz was the only American reporter on the ground when the devastating earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. In his first book, he details the repercussions of the disaster and the vicissitudes of international aid, providing insight into Haitian history and society. Profiles of former president Rene Préval, Bill Clinton, Sean Penn, and Wyclef Jean emphasize both the gifts and limitations of the people who had the potential to make a significant difference after the earthquake. Katz stresses the value of international aid and the danger of NGOs assuming that Haiti can't govern itself: "It's true that we don't always know what locals will do with that assistance," he notes, "but that's the point. It's up to them." Bloated promises characterized postquake donations: by the end of 2010, .43 billion of a promised .3 billion had been delivered; 93% of this money stayed with the U.N. or NGOs, and only 1% ( million) was given to the Haitian government. Katz debunks the assumption that a disaster leads to social disintegration or rioting and observes how media sensationalism prompted unwise giving. Agent: David M. Larabell, David Black Agency. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
A top-notch account of Haiti's recent history, including the January 2010 earthquake, from the only American reporter stationed in the country at the time. Katz broke the story of how the deadly cholera outbreak, which spread in the months after the earthquake, was brought to the region by infected Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers and spread by inadequate sanitation. In his debut, the author chronicles his many investigations during his years living in and writing about Haiti. Unlike coverage by other writers on the island's recent history, Katz's recounting of the earthquake disaster, and the international mobilization that followed, is part of an ongoing story. This account complements those of others who have written of their direct experiences with the aftermath of the earthquake, but Katz's position on the ground when the disaster struck makes this book unique--"it allowed me to understand both sides of the divide, between those who seek to improve how aid is given, and those who have been trying to improve their own lives for so long." His contacts and local knowledge gave him special insight into the way the relief operation developed. Katz shows in detail how well-meaning actor Sean Penn (who lacked expertise) fed media hype about flooding dangers and diphtheria scares, which got in the way of efforts by qualified experts such as epidemiologist Paul Farmer. The author reports how promised aid funds didn't arrive and NGO relief funds were misspent, while Haitians, presumed to be corrupt, were shut out of involvement in relief efforts. He also examines the involvement of the Duvalier clan. An eye-opening, trailblazing exposé.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781137278975
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 162,578
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan M. Katz was the 2010 recipient of the Medill Medal of Courage in Journalism and the 2012 winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for this book. He wrote and edited for the Associated Press for eight years in about a dozen countries and territories, three and a half years of which he spent living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He was the only full-time American reporter on the ground when the earthquake struck. Katz is often featured as an expert on Haiti on television and radio.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Prologue 5

1 The End 13

2 Love Theme from Titanic 35

3 Blan and Nèg 53

4 The Crossroads 67

In Louisville 87

5 Spoiled Corn 93

6 Bon Dola 109

7 The Governor 135

8 "When I Get Older" 155

9 Sugar Land 171

Miracle Falls 189

10 Face to Face 197

11 A Gut Feeling 217

12 Cardboard Palace 245

13 All Together Now 263

Epilogue: Memwa 277

Notes 283

Acknowledgments 299

Index 301

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Jonathan M. Katz, author of The Big Truck That Went By

You spent years writing hundreds of daily news articles from Haiti as a foreign correspondent, before and after the quake. What made you decide to write this book?

You know, as it did for many of us, the experience of living through the earthquake changed me in some ways, and in others made me truer to my previous self. My usual role as a dispassionate observer of events was gone in an instant, or at least made more complicated. After years of keeping myself out of stories about things that had happened to others, the biggest disaster to ever strike Haiti—one of the worst disasters to strike anywhere, ever—had happened to me, too. But I was still at heart a reporter who wanted to tell the best, most complete story possible. And as the weeks and months went by, I realized that despite a lot of good efforts by journalists and others, Haitian and foreign, including myself, the true story of the earthquake and the response—why it was failing, and how that was affecting people on the ground—was not reaching the millions watching from overseas, many of whom had pledged money and support. The constraints of a typical news article could only do so much. I felt that only by telling a more complete version of the story, with all the voice and expression possible in a nonfiction book, could I really communicate what I wanted.

What's your most vivid memory of the earthquake's aftermath?

That's a tough question. There are a lot of memories I'd rather forget. But the images that stick with me the most when I think about those days after the disaster were the ways in which people came together, and the sense of community that formed across the quake zone. I remember how it felt to embrace friends I'd feared were gone, and the closeness I felt to those around me, especially my friend and colleague Evens Sanon, who plays a big role in the book. I can still hear the sound of his voice booming through the dust cloud right after the earth stopped moving, and that sensation of half-laughing, half-crying I felt inside. Realizing that he was alive, and looking for me amid the rubble, I knew we were going to get through this. Though I had no idea how.

The book makes a great case for why our notions of concepts such as "aid" and "employment" don't always apply in Haiti, and the problems such gaps in understanding have caused over the years. How do you explain that to someone new to the country?

Haiti is a country that has historically too often had things done to it, as opposed to by, with, or for it. It's common for people from different parts of the world to see things differently; most Chicagoans have a different idea of what makes for a fun vacation than a family from Tokyo, and are willing to accept a very different set of working hours and conditions than people from Barcelona. The problem comes when ideas and policies are imposed from the outside with little regard for what will actually be helpful, or even acceptable, on the ground. One clear example has been the sorry recent history of foreign food in Haiti—not only in the form of food aid, but trade policies that have severely undercut the country's ability to produce its own food crop. From the outside, it's often hard to understand how sending huge amounts of free or heavily subsidized food to hungry people could possibly be a bad thing. But from Haiti's perspective, it's obvious: The cheap imports have undercut farmers for decades, driving countless growers out of business. That in turn fosters something even worse than dependency, because before long people can't even afford the cheapest grain, and no one is willing or able to pump a sufficient amount of free food into the market to keep up with demand. The only solution is better understanding and cooperation, so we can find policies that don't just sound good in theory, but work in practice.

In the The Big Truck That Went By you're often challenging authorities, whether it's Haitian officials, Bill Clinton, aid groups—or especially the United Nations, who your reporting showed caused the cholera epidemic that killed thousands of Haitians after the quake. Where there any officials or groups you thought were doing a good job in postquake Haiti?

I think a lot of people were doing a good job in postquake Haiti, including among the categories you just mentioned. The problem wasn't that everyone was failing at everything all the time, but rather that the coordinated, effective effort that was needed to recover from the disaster never materialized. The UN is a good example. There were elements of that system that made important contributions: The UN World Food Program, for one, pushed back when other aid groups were delivering food directly to the burgeoning camps—a bad policy that helped attract more people into the homeless settlements—and helped craft a more sensible distribution policy to fill gaps in the food supply, though that took weeks to put in place. But the introduction of cholera in late 2010 was such a monumental screw-ups that it just wiped out all other efforts to improve hygiene and cut down the ever-present risk of disease. When your troops introduce a bacterium in a river that kills more than 7,000 people, and then you continue to refuse all accountability for your blatant negligence, it doesn't really matter what else you or your colleagues have done. The problem has to be addressed first.

As a journalist researching a story in a place where everyone is in great need, you frequently came across people who wanted things from you. Did you feel there were parts of yourself you had to turn off?

It was a difficult balance. On the one hand I wanted to help people, who after all in many cases were my neighbors. But there were also ethical and practical concerns. As a journalist, I couldn't really go around handing out money, or doing constant favors. Such practices can compromise your independence and make reporting next to impossible for you and everyone else—if foreign journalists start to be seen as walking ATMs, we soon find that the only people willing to talk are also those demanding or expecting a payoff. That compromises the integrity of our reporting. At the same time, you can't be made of stone. If someone was in need, and I had a way to help without compromising my reporting or putting either of us in harm's way, I usually did so. In the end, I considered reporting to be the primary service I could provide. But that was a constant struggle, and one I explore in the book.

You describe very eloquently your emotions and state of mind after the quake, and how much it's changed you. How did you adjust to life in the States after you moved back from the disaster zone?

Some days were easy, and some were hard. I spent a lot of time taking hot showers and drinking tap water, I'll tell you that much. The Big Truck That Went By is also, in part, a love story, and the relationship that grew out of that made the adjustment that much easier. But I'm sorry to say that lately, it seems like the disaster zones haven't been so far away: Two straight years of a hurricanes hitting New York City now, and far more East Coast temblors than I'd like to have counted, are reminders that Haiti's story isn't just about things that happened to some people on an island somewhere. Coping with, and preparing for, disasters, is something we all have to deal with, and now more than ever. There are a lot of lessons from Haiti in that respect, good and bad, which we should be ready to apply at home.

Who have you discovered lately?

I recently stumbled onto a new book by Emily Raboteau called Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora. I'm not very far in, but so far it's been a fantastic exploration, both very personal and well-reported, of the complex and varied meaning of home for those who feel displaced. While writing The Big Truck I was also turned onto William Finnegan's A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique, which is a great read, and both a book and chapter of history that people should know much more about.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2013

    highly recommend a real eye-opener

    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

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2013

    Highly Recommended

    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

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2015

    A should read for anyone who donates to disaster relief.

    If you ever wondered how the money you donate to disaster relief is used, how effective NGOs are, how governmental relief aid is spent and what effect a celebrity endorsement can have this book is for you. The book intertwines that information with what life was like for the Haitians before the disaster and what it was like after all the "help" was provided. An eye opener!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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