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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Haiti Earthquake: 3 Years After ‘The Big Truck That Went By’

Six-year-old Charles Kerby hold his 11-month-old sister Mikerlina Dragon inside the Ste Therese camp, set up for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake, in Petion-Ville, Haiti, in June 2012. Kerby had to drop out of school after the 2010 earthquake to help his working mother care for his two brothers and sisters. (Dieu Nalio Chery/AP)

Six-year-old Charles Kerby hold his 11-month-old sister Mikerlina Dragon inside the Ste Therese camp, set up for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake, in Petion-Ville, Haiti, in June 2012. Kerby had to drop out of school after the 2010 earthquake to help his working mother care for his two brothers and sisters. (Dieu Nalio Chery/AP)

This Saturday marks the third anniversary of the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010.

Jonathan Katz, working for the Associated Press (AP), was the only full-time American correspondent there when it happened.

He survived and has written a book, “The Big Truck That Went By: How The World Came To Save Haiti And Left Behind A Disaster“, about the experience and the relief effort that followed (read an excerpt below). It’s not a pretty picture.

Interview Highlights

Jonathan Katz on the meaning of “the big truck that went by”

Jonathan M. Katz is author of “The Big Truck That Went By.” (Zach Hetrick)

“It was actually a name for the earthquake a number of Haitians gave in creole ‘gwo machin ki pase’ the big truck that went by, but it also hearkened to the fact that on a normal day in Port o Prince, you’ve got these huge trucks rumbling through the streets, shaking the houses, delivering basic services like water or power for a generator that in other countries would be delivered by the state or by a wire or by a pipe. And so it was hearkening both to the dissolution of the state and the sound that the earthquake made, and then finally of course the imagery of the big truck of aid that came in response.”

On what it was like to experience the earthquake

“We can talk about the smell and the sound and the sensation and the fear, but even for me now trying to recall, I don’t even know if my own memories do justice to the totality of the experience while we were in it. I don’t think the human mind, fortunately, is programmed to be able to really relive a moment like that or the moments after in full because otherwise it would be impossible to do anything else with your life.”

On the international relief effort that followed

“People were just sort of doing whatever seemed right, or whatever their own protocols were, or whatever they had done in some very different circumstances in a very different part of the world.” [Robin: "Boxes of Danish hand puppets came!"] “You can imagine somebody in Denmark thinking these poor children, I see the pictures, they’re crying, if only there was something there that could bring them some comfort. And that’s a great notion, but it doesn’t really work unless you’re coordinating – someone can actually sort out the hand puppets from the food from the bandages. It’s very obvious in hindsight, but some of these things were even very clear at the time. Nobody was really taking the time to stop and think about it.”

Book Excerpt: The Big Truck That Went By

By: Jonathan M. Katz


Book cover for "The Big Truck That Went By" by Jonathan M. Katz

“Why Haiti?” Hillary Rodham Clinton asked in early 2010, speaking on behalf of a bewildered world. The earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince and much of southern Haiti had defied logic, imagination, even superstition. How did a magnitude 7.0 temblor—a huge release of energy, but not necessarily catastrophic—prove to be the deadliest natural disaster ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere? Why did an earthquake, of all calamities, strike at the heart of a nation already reeling from so many others? And why, three years after so many countries and ordinary people sent money and help, hasn’t Haiti gotten better?

I wrote this book in part to answer those questions. When the earthquake struck, I had been living in Haiti for two and a half years. I had already seen a lifetime’s worth of disasters, both political and natural. Two centuries of turmoil and foreign meddling had left a Haitian state so anemic it couldn’t even count how many citizens it had. Millions were packed in and around the nation’s capital, living in poorly made buildings stacked atop a fault line. People could not rely on police, a fire department, or schools. Even the rat-infested General Hospital charged so much for basic medicine that few Haitians could afford care. Nearly everything—water, gas for generators, hungry relatives from the countryside—was delivered by truck. Each day, big eighteen-wheelers rumbled down the narrow streets, shaking homes as they passed. When the shockwave surged through Port-au-Prince, just fifteen miles from the epicenter, many of us thought at first that it was a gwo machin, a big truck, going by.

I wanted to understand how people could endure not only the catastrophe that befell Haiti on January 12, 2010, but also the hardship and absurdity that followed. The aid response was marked by the best intentions: an international outpouring for Port-au-Prince, Carrefour, Jacmel, Léogâne, and other cities in the disaster zone. The numbers were astounding: The world spent more than $5.2 billion on the emergency relief effort; private donations reached $1.4 billion in the United States alone.1 Thousands of doctors and nurses performed lifesaving surgeries. When it came time to plan for the future, governments pledged about $10 billion more for Haiti’s recovery and reconstruction, promising to build a better, safer, more prosperous Haiti than before. “We need Haiti to succeed,” Hillary Clinton told a donors’ conference, as she answered her own question. “What happens there has repercussions far beyond its borders.”2

But today, Haiti is not better off. It ended its year of earthquakes with three new crises: nearly a million people still homeless; political riots fueled by frustration over the stalled reconstruction; and the worst cholera epidemic in recent history, likely caused by the very U.N. soldiers sent to Haiti to protect its people (that story, and my investigation, appear later in the book). Those few who were fortunate enough to leave post-quake camps—an estimated 400,000 still lived under tarps as of mid-2012—usually settled in houses no safer than the ones that collapsed in the earthquake. Though by the time you read this book, the ruins of the devastated National Palace might finally have been cleared, rubble, some mixed with human remains, still chokes much of the city. At last count, more than half the reconstruction money that was supposed to be delivered as of 2011 remains an unfulfilled promise. For many of my Haitian friends, some of whom you’ll meet in this book, the legacy of the response has been a sense of betrayal.

I wanted to write this book to understand how a massive humanitarian effort, led by the most powerful nation in the world—my country—could cause so much harm and heartache in another that wanted its help so badly. The United States and Haiti have long had a special relationship, though not an easy one. Founded only decades apart, the first republic in the Western Hemisphere at first refused to recognize the second, then brutally occupied it, and finally spent decades meddling in its affairs. The extreme centralization of people and services in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, which proved so deadly in the earthquake, was in large part a legacy of U.S. policy and actions.

But Haitians admire the American people, and many dream of coming here one day. Haitian Americans have prospered and play major roles in American life while sustaining millions on the island with money sent back (remittances make up more than a quarter of the Haitian economy).3 Many Americans, meanwhile, are fascinated by a close neighbor whose apparent poverty and dysfunction can be used to affirm our wealth and strength, where good deeds can be performed and theories tested, framed by a culture of Vodou and zombies that entices the imagination. Several officials I talked to for this book spoke of a widely held “romanticism” of the black republic among their colleagues.

One of Hillary Clinton’s first acts as secretary of state was to order a review of U.S. policy toward Haiti. That review was finished on the afternoon of January 12, 2010, barely an hour before the earthquake struck.4 The Americans shifted focus quickly and led the response, providing the largest sums of money and huge numbers of personnel—22,000 U.S. troops alone at the height. In many ways, the response’s legacy, good and bad, is an American legacy. We owe it to ourselves to find out what happened.

It’s worth considering Haiti also because of what its experience means for all of us. We are living in a time of record-setting hurricane seasons, droughts, wildfires, blizzards, earthquake clusters, and disease, many reaching places that long ago thought they had developed their way out of trouble. In 2010, natural disasters cost $123 billion and affected 300 million people.5 Understanding how to deal with these crises in the future means understanding what has been done so far. Rescue workers, officials—and, yes, journalists—still approach crises unprepared to think beyond the hoary, illogical clichés that gird disaster response. For instance, that people will panic, riot, or turn on each other after a disaster; typically, they don’t. Or that in fashioning solutions to disasters, doing something is always better than doing nothing, no matter how poorly thought-out it is; it’s not. And, for anyone who gave money to a major aid group, that they were going to be able to spend your $20 donation.

Excerpted from the book THE BIG TRUCK THAT WENT BY by Jonathan M. Katz. Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan M. Katz and reprinted with permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.


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  • DocDub

    What a remarkably self-indulgent, politically myopic interview, sadly, on both sides.

    • Robin Y

      of course, would like to hear more.


  • CommProf

    I am looking forward to reading this book.  As a professor trying to teach students about doing responsible international aid that does not harm the people or societies they seek to help, this book seems to speak to key issues.  Too many groups/individuals walk in wanting to help and do so from their own ethnocentric perspectives without understanding the culture.  Doing FOR others disempowers.  Doing WITH others helps build capacity for those being helped.  I applaud the topic of this book and hope it will wake up many to the issues of providing aid.  And this kind of issue is occurring in many places.  The world has spent more money on Africa in the past two decades than any other aid area, and yet Africa is much worse off than it was 20 years ago.  Something isn’t working effectively.  Help is a good thing, but only if it is done effectively.

    • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

      Thanks for listening. I think the book would be helpful because it really goes deep into the history of Haiti and of this aid effort in particular. We didn’t have time to get it all into 15 minutes.  

  • JayHaden

    1)  I retired from the UN eight years ago.  From all reports, UN-Habitat, the UN agency I worked for responded quickly to the earthquake in Haiti, bringing its expertise in housing in disaster situations to bear.   The strategy UN-Habitat has adopted is to integrate long-term planning for community development with the urgent need to set up “temporary” camps for disaster survivors.  Such camps have a way of becoming permanent, so let’s at least organize them around that reality.  It’s been a long slog to get the international community to recognize and act on this strategy.  Lot’s of resources go to first-responder agencies and not nearly enough to the land use planning and infrastructure engineering that will be needed for survivors to pull their lives together into communities.  In fact, the UN system has been underfunded and purposely divided into functional compartments, so it is exceedingly difficult to do anything holistically.  Instead what we get is dueling agencies, in competition for table scraps offered by donor countries.  And, Mr. Katz is correct that each donor country has its own agenda and will give money to the specialized agencies that most closely match its own agenda and agree to use the money to contract with the donor country’s list of consultants and suppliers.  One of the outcomes of this situation is that donors can always point to the failure of the UN in order to avoid criticism that would otherwise be aimed at their own efforts.  In other words, much of the aid game (and the UN in general) is designed to fail because it gives national governments a way to avoid their own responsibilities.  

    2)   After not hearing much on UN-Habitat’s effectiveness in Haiti, I wrote to Pres. Clinton to inform him of a very successful UN-Habitat project that might be scaled up in Haiti.  In Costa Rica, we supported a project to design earthquake resistant housing, made from local bamboo that can be cultivated and quickly grown as a sustainable supply of building materials.  Because of Haiti’s history of deforestation, such a project could serve two purposes: provision of much needed housing and remediation of the environment.  I have no idea if the natural conditions are right for such a program, but I never heard anything back from President Clinton or his people.  Here, I suspect such foundations have their own agendas, and anything outside the bounds of predetermined action will be ignored.  At the very least, the lack of response was discourteous, and in being so, will discourage the contribution by informed citizens in the future.  

  • Former Development Worker

    I’ve been looking for a good & detailed analysis of what is happening in Haiti since the Quake and it appears Mr. Katz might have answers for me.

  • Peter Townsend

    A touching and informative segment that rises crucial questions about how best to help the people of Haiti.  I fear that there is a real danger of donor fatigue and despair.  I have found a non-profit Cite Soleil Opportunity Council that was founded by a Wellesley resident, Dr. Larry Kaplan, that supports Haitian generated projects to revitalize the community, including micro finance loans, trade school grants, public works activities and civic empowerment groups.  I look forward to reading Mr. Kanz’s book.

  • Gesnerlefevre

    I will never forget you guys. I already took one minute of silence for them who died or lost their families.

  • life….


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