When an earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, journalist and Northwestern alumnus Jonathan Katz was waiting for a phone call confirming his transfer to Afghanistan. After spending two and a half years as an Associated Press reporter in Haiti, Katz thought he was ready to move on. Instead, Katz (Weinberg ’02, Medill ’04) spent the rest of the day, and most of the year, covering the earthquake and its aftermath.
Katz’s new book, “The Big Truck That Went By,” was released earlier this year and focuses on his experiences in Haiti, the aftermath of the earthquake and the international aid system as a whole. After writing numerous articles about the Caribbean country, Katz decided it was time to work on a longer narrative.
“I thought that it was an important thing to get between two pieces of cardboard on 300 pages,” said Katz, a former Daily staffer. “Have, as much as possible, all variables in place as a single complex narrative, so other people could sit down and read it. And maybe, if I did my job right, transport them back to that day and give details about what exactly is going on.”
When the earthquake hit, Katz was the only full-time correspondent in Haiti, leaving him responsible for calling AP and reporting on the disaster immediately after it happened.
“It was basically a sort of nonstop burst of adrenaline,” Katz said. “I was basically out there, just trying to … understand what had happened and what people were going through.”
Katz stayed to report in Haiti for about a year after the earthquake. After taking some time off and continuing to report in New York and Mexico City, Katz was trying to figure out his next steps, which he said he hoped would include writing a book.
“I felt that I had a much bigger story to tell than I had been able to tell,” Katz said. “I felt like I had a lot of detail and nuance that I wasn’t able to include the first time around.”
Although Katz said he loves to write, going back to pen “The Big Truck That Went By” was an intense process that took less than a year. Katz reviewed old stories, did additional reporting and worked to make sure past information was completely accurate. Writing the first chapter of the book, in which he recounts his experience of being in an earthquake, proved to be particularly challenging.
“Going back over a very personally traumatic experience over and over again was difficult,” Katz said. “I was reliving something I don’t want to relive over and over again.”
Katz attended NU as an undergraduate student in American studies and history and graduated in 2002. He returned to attend graduate school at Medill to gain more writing experience. The University recognized his hard work in Haiti by awarding him The 2010 Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism. Katz was nominated for the honor by John Daniszewski, a senior editor for AP. It’s an award Katz calls a “tremendous honor.”
“It was something I share with a lot of people in Haiti who were working with me, and I think equally deserving of it,” Katz said.
Prof. Donna Leff, one of the 2010 judges for the annual award, spoke highly of Katz’s work.
“He told really vivid and good stories as well as showing tremendous courage and working under conditions of real adversity going there,” Leff said. “A lot of the entries show real courage, but they’re not necessarily always good journalism. And in this case, it was both.”
Katz accepted the award and participated in a question-and-answer session at Medill with his former professor Marcel Pacatte in 2011. Pacatte, who has kept in contact with Katz over the years, said he was honored to be chosen by Katz to moderate the event and said hearing about Katz’s experiences in person added to his understanding of the earthquake in Haiti.
“I think I was mostly aware of his work during the quake and immediately after the quake, and really his most important work came in the aftermath when the aid wasn’t getting to people,” Pacatte said.
The problem with foreign aid is an issue Katz observed firsthand in Haiti prior to the earthquake, and it’s an issue he deals with throughout “The Big Truck That Went By.” Katz said he hopes his on-the-ground experience will add to the overall narrative of international aid.
“When you’re in Haiti and looking back at the United States … there are some things that seem very obvious, but that just don’t get talked about here,” Katz said. “I hope that my book will be able to bring in some light that is born out of a direct experience on the ground, bring a little nuance and a little bit … of a broader perspective.”
Pacatte praised Katz’s ability to ask important questions, a skill he had even as a graduate student at Medill.
“He calls bullshit and always did and always will,” Pacatte said. “He looked for why does this happen, why does it continue to happen and it’s a much more nuanced story and also a much more sad story about Haiti and its people.”