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The Big Truck That Went By

Why have well-intentioned foreigners done so little for post-quake Haiti?

By Jina Moore / January 16, 2013

The Big Truck That Went By By Jonathan Katz Palgrave Macmillan 320 pp.

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The numbers are not inspiring: Six months after the United States pledged $1.15 billion to Haiti in response to the 2010 earthquake, not one dime had arrived in the country. Three years after the magnitude-7.0 quake, with 100,000 Haitians still living as squatters, a $15.7 million Best Western is one of the country’s most significant new building projects.

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A book telling only this story would be worth reading. The Big Truck That Went By, by former Associated Press writer Jonathan Katz, does this and much more.

Katz starts with what becomes a parable: the story of a private school called La Promesse (“The Promise”), built in the wealthy Haitian hilltop suburb of Pétionville but attended by kids from the slum below. It was no secret that the school was poorly built. Even before it collapsed in 2008, killing 93 (mostly children), “parents living along the ridge could see what was happening, but they were in no position to complain.” Anyway, “most had built their homes the same [shoddy] way.” 

In fact, most of the country was built that way, as Katz learned firsthand. He was living in that suburb – the only American journalist permanently based in Haiti – when the earthquake struck in January 2010. His retelling of that moment is gripping. He heard a rumble; his bed shook. “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.”

Everything is thrown against everything else. “There was a contest between the up and down and the side to side,” he writes. Minutes later, a colleague gets him out.

Katz doesn’t linger long on his personal story. Just a few pages later, we’re listening to the pitched wails of mourning. “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,” Katz writes. “Now it came from everywhere.”

Haiti had seen its share of natural disasters, but the wealthy had rarely suffered. This earthquake leveled off economic advantage: “[G]reat government ministries and posh hotels had crumbled alongside the meanest cinder-block homes. The homes and apartments of embassy workers had collapsed along with the supermarkets and gyms they had frequented.”

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