The Big Truck That Went By shows Haiti earthquake’s rubble remains

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The Big Truck That Went By

By Jonathan M. Katz. Palgrave Macmillan, 320 pp, hardcover

It is difficult to convey the extent of the destruction that a 7.0-magnitude earthquake released on the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in January 2010. It’s similarly challenging to comprehend the size of the relief effort that followed.

Governments and individuals pledged billions and aid workers descended on the small country in overwhelming numbers. “The U.S. Air Forces Special Operations Team landed 140 flights a day at an airport that normally averaged seven,” writes Associated Press correspondent Jonathan Katz in his first book The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.

Yet one year later, when bodies were still being discovered, more than two thirds of aid promised for the first two years of recovery had yet to be delivered, and 95 percent of the rubble remained where it had fallen.

In this journalistic account of the year following the quake, Katz—who reported from Haiti for a total of three-and-a-half years—and his Haitian colleague Evens Sanon have laid bare the dysfunction, ineptitude, and hubris that characterizes so many attempts at disaster relief and international aid.

NGO staffers’ short-term rotations meant there were few truly experienced people on the ground. Overly cautious safety regulations insulated foreign workers from the problems they were supposed to solve. And a shocking proportion of monetary aid never went to Haiti at all: “93 percent would go right back to the UN or NGOs to pay for supplies and personnel, or never leave the donor states at all,” Katz notes.

Alternating between fact-and-figure–based narratives and anecdotal reports, Katz delivers a frank and absorbing chronicle of the reconstruction effort and life after the quake. He repeatedly checks in with the Cherys, an ordinary family struggling to get back on its feet; recounts navigating his way around pits of human waste in search of the source of a cholera outbreak; and takes readers to a concert featuring Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, “the swearingest, filthiest bad boy in all of Haitian kompa music” (elected president in March 2011).

With so many books on international development rooted in ideology, Katz’s work is refreshing in that it is free of biases and even substantial analysis. Katz simply describes what he saw and heard while in Haiti, and leaves the readers to arrive at their own conclusions.

You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.

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