'The Big Truck That Went By': A Journalist's Account of the Earthquake and its Aftermath in Haiti

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Audio Transcript:

Jeb Sharp: I'm Jeb Sharp and this is The World. The coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. This weekend marks three years since the earthquake in Haiti, the country and its people are still struggling to overcome the devastating blow. Johnathan Katz was the Associated Press reporter in Port au Prince the day the quake hit. Katz' new book is called "The Big Truck That Went By" because he says, that's what the quake sounded like.

Johnathan Katz: In that particular kind of quake the sound is a very salient feature of it, because you hear this rumble coming from the distance and for a long time after when I would hear any kind of rumbling since there so little time between when you hear that first rumble and that strike up afterward, it was very panicking, so even if a generator came on, or frankly if a big truck went by I would often have that same kind of fear.

Sharp: On January 12, 2010 Katz was in his house, which doubles as the AP Bureau, he says the building essentially crumbled around him.

Katz: When I emerged from the house, with my colleague my friend Evan Senon who was on the premises with me. We stopped and we looked up at this neighborhood that had been behind our house before, an area called Mortlesar and it was gone, been replaced basically by this dust cloud stretching from horizon to horizon and out of that cloud and all around us, there was this sound this this screaming this kind of wailing it's a very particular sound, it's honestly something I've only heard in Haiti, it's usually from women its often the way people react to a tragedy of any scale, you know, the death of a child, it could be a horrific car accident it's just this haunting wail, of just incredible sadness that I think I'll probably spend the rest of my life actually trying to forget.

Sharp: You then go out to see what's happened. And you have many scenes, many memories, many descriptions. Three years later is there an overriding one? Is there a sensation, is there a picture is there a person, who stays with you the most?

Katz: I mean the sensations of not being able to breathe of the dust clouds you know sorta feeling these particles, you know, scratching our throats, scratching my throat, scratching my lungs. There was a lot of really terrible stuff it was a horrible tragedy that was creditably pervasive. It struck so hard, and it struck so many people, it was so total, that everywhere you turned that night and when the sun came up the next morning, there was death everywhere and there was sadness everywhere. And a and even though those are things that it's very important to note; don't define Haiti forever they define this tragedy, if you're talking about the tragedy itself yeah; those are unavoidable.

Sharp: You write in the book that you were actually totally done with Haiti,you were preparing to leave when the earthquake struck. And you decided to stay.

Katz: Look, clearly as a journalist I was now in the mist of a major story. it was a story that I knew, it was a place that I cared about and you know I felt that it was very important to stay there and be a witness and investigator, and and try to keep track of the reconstruction and and try keep an eye on the promises that were being made because there were very grandiose promises being made oversees to help rebuild the country. and I felt a responsibility, and desire to continue reporting there.

Sharp: And finally Johnathan you said "Don't let the earthquake define Haiti". What do you most miss about Haiti?

Katz: Haiti is wrongly looked at from the outside as this place that is just a story of unbroken sadness and unbroken tragedy, and even though tragedy is an important part of the country's recent past and even though poverty is important thing to grapple with in terms of understanding the countries present and future. It's also important to understand that even in the mist of these things, you know, people are having fun, people are falling in love, people are getting in fights over stupid things. And living lives like people live lives anywhere else. And I think by telling fuller stories and complicating our narratives a little bit I'm hoping some of what I was able to do in the book, that we can get a better understanding of one another then ultimately we can take a relationship writ large between you know large powerful countries such as the United States, and Haiti and other vulnerable countries like it — and really make something better in the future. I think there's always a lot of optimism because the story is never over and there's always a chance to start doing things better, but we need to start now.

Sharp: Johnathan thank you.

Katz: Thank you.

Sharp: By the way, the full title of Johnathan Katz book is "The Big Truck That Went By; How the World Came To Haiti and Left A Disaster Behind". Katz write extensively about the money promised to Haiti and where it all went. You can hear that part of our conversation at THEWORLD.org