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

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

by Jonathan M. Katz


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137278975
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 138,449
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About 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 The Big Truck That Went By. 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.

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 Press

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan M. Katz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-32395-8



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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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


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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The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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
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