On the day in January 2010 that Port-au-Prince was leveled by an earthquake, which claimed as many as 316,000 lives, Jonathan Katz was waiting for a phone call.
That call, from AP headquarters officially concluding his 2½-year assignment in Haiti, never came. Instead, after narrowly escaping the ruins of his own house as it came crashing down around him, Katz stayed on for an additional year to report on the aftermath of the earthquake and the success and failures of the efforts to rebuild the fallen capital.
Katz details what he experienced and learned in “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left a Disaster Behind,’’ which is part memoir, part reportage. The book offers wrenching tales of the suffering of ordinary Haitians and a devastating account of good intentions gone awry.
In the days after the tragedy, good will flowed: Private American citizens donated $1.4 billion, and the world spent $5.2 billion on relief efforts. In addition, tens of thousands of military personnel and volunteers arrived from around the globe to help in the recovery.
And yet, despite all of those resources, much of the aid proved inappropriate, even counterproductive at times. Katz eloquently describes the reluctance of foreign donors, governmental and private, to channel funding through Haitian governmental institutions because of concerns about corruption. Not only did this undermine the government’s authority in the eyes of its people, it prevented programs developed by Haitians and suited for Haitians from being carried out in favor of those designed by foreigners.
For example, one major problem was what to do with the more than 1 million people made homeless by the quake. Squatter camps in and near the ruined capital, often built on flood plains and lacking the most basic infrastructure and sanitation, were being legitimized, even encouraged by aid groups who were using them as distribution points for water and other supplies.
Mike Godfrey, a USAID worker with decades of experience in disaster relief, tried unsuccessfully to explain to the foreign Samaritans that their efforts were harmful. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, 600,000 people had left Port-au-Prince for the rural countryside. He pointed out that by distributing aid at the rural tent cities instead of at separate distribution points the groups were pulling masses in, fostering a situation that was dangerous on several levels and one that would hamper longer-term recovery.
Noting that most of these groups had very little personal knowledge about Haiti, Godfrey noted at one meeting of the responders: “How can you continue to function when there isn’t a person who’s been here for more than three weeks, and the chairman arrived yesterday.”
One of the most distressing legacies of the foreign presence in Haiti was the reemergence of cholera 10 months after the earthquake after not having been seen there for more than a century. Cholera has killed more than 7,500 Haitians to date, and sickened 6 percent of the population. It was most likely brought to the island by Nepalese troops manning a UN outpost above the Artibonite river, whose sewage continued to flow undisturbed into the river months after the epidemic started, as Katz found when visiting the outpost.
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. Katz successfully describes the difficulties and contradictions of being a privileged foreigner trying to do some good in the face of such overwhelming need, which continues to this day.
Dennis Rosen, a pediatric lung and sleep specialist who practices in Boston, has made three trips to Haiti since the 2010 earthquake as a medical volunteer worker. He can be reached at email@example.com.