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Originally published Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 5:01 AM

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A journalist at the epicenter of Haiti’s ordeal

AP reporter Jonathan Katz’s “The Big Truck That Went By” tells the story of his three and a half years of reporting on Haiti and its earthquake, from the quake’s devastation to urgent questions on how to rebuild the country.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster”

by Jonathan Katz

Palgrave MacMillan, 320 pp., $26

Late afternoon on Jan. 12, 2010, reporter Jonathan Katz heard a loud rumbling outside his residence in the hills above Port-au-Prince. He thought the noise came from a water truck passing through his neighborhood. Then the bed started to vibrate, the front wall cracked and the house started shaking like an airplane in a storm.

Katz is a keen observer and a talented writer. In his compelling first book, “The Big Truck That Went By,” he weaves his personal narrative of surviving an earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people with an investigative tale of an aid effort that provided short-term relief but failed to launch a broader recovery.

When the quake struck, Katz had already been in Haiti for 2½ years with The Associated Press. He extended his stay for another year to report the aftermath, a period that also encompassed his own struggles with post traumatic stress.

His time on the ground provided him with plenty of memorable, at times chilling, experiences to fold into the book.,

In the early aftermath of the quake, Katz and his Haitian AP colleague, Evens Sanson, tried to balance reporting the suffering and lending a hand. They stopped in front of a collapsed six-story apartment building and found a girl in a pink-collared shirt informing them that her whole family was inside.

Katz used the flash on his camera to illuminate the rock pile where he and others labored in a nighttime rescue effort. Without tools, they weren’t getting anywhere so they moved on.

A few hours later, when Katz reviewed a series of digital-photo frames, he realized that within that rubble, he had overlooked the protruding head of man in obvious pain but very much alive.

“I didn’t see or hear him. I don’t know what I would have done if I had,” Katz wrote.

Some of the scenes in Katz’s book rival anything that you would find in Graham Greene’s classic 1966 novel about Haiti, “The Comedians.” Katz visits a Haitian night club where a flamboyant 49-year-old Kompa singer, whips dancers into a frenzy as he proclaims that “We’ll all be dead in five years ... So take your pleasure while you can.” This is the reader’s introduction to Micky Martelly, who in 2011 would improbably win a longshot-political campaign to be elected president of Haiti.

In his examination of the troubled-aid effort, Katz recounts his own investigations of how poorly handled waste from a United Nations camp of Nepali soldiers fouled Haitian waters and triggered a cholera epidemic that claimed thousands of more lives. He questions development plans that looked to low-wage garment industry jobs as a source of economic recovery.

Katz also explores the bitter debates about how international aid should flow to Haiti. The vast majority of billions of aid dollars did not flow through the Haitian government, with donors believing that it was too weak in the aftermath of a quake that killed so many of its employees, to handle most funds.

Yet that spawned multiple, at times disjointed, efforts, turning the Haitian government into a feeble partner in the reconstruction effort.

Katz offers ample examples of both questionable conduct by NGOS and the Haitian government. In the end, he comes down on the side of funneling more aid to local governments.

“It’s true that we don’t always know what locals will do with that assistance, but that’s the point,” Katz writes. “It’s up to them.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com. Bernton, a Seattle Times reporter, traveled to Haiti three times in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

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