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Lucy Easthope: “We are all disaster survivors now”

The leading expert on emergency planning and disaster recovery speaks about life after the pandemic.

By Rachel Cunliffe

I arrived late to meet Lucy Easthope due to train problems and rushed into the coffee shop near her home in Shrewsbury flustered and apologetic. Within seconds, she had presented me with a bottle of water and a chocolate bar and calmed me down. Dressed in a cosy jumper decorated with cherries, she had the reassuring demeanour of a popular teacher. You would never know that she spends her days at disaster sites, surrounded by carnage, destruction and dead bodies, working out how to get the personal effects of the deceased back to their families, or else writing plans for the government on what to do the next time things go horribly wrong. 

Easthope, 44, is a leading disaster expert. For two decades it has been her job to plan for the worst and to respond when it happens, handling the recovery efforts for earthquakes, floods, train crashes, fires and wars. Operating alongside, but not a part of, the emergency services, hers is a shadow industry: a hidden world of victim identification, impact assessments, and procurement orders for coffins and body bags. It’s a world most people try not to think about, but a year ago she wrote a book about what she had learned.

When the Dust Settles takes readers “behind the police tape” and lays bare the realities of disaster management. It’s a vivid, unflinching and deeply personal read: Easthope takes us from the 9/11 terror attacks to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the 2005 London Underground bombings, the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire and the pandemic. The book was published just days after the final UK Covid restrictions were lifted in March 2022. “We are all disaster survivors now,” she wrote then. 

“It’s a line that people push back on,” she said, in her warm Liverpudlian accent. “I get people questioning why I wrote that. They say ‘a survivor is someone dripping with blood, stumbling through the wreckage, who has lost a loved one – we’re not survivors’.”

Except, she argues, we are. For two years we lived in a state of terror. Families were torn apart, children were kept from school, people lost loved ones without the chance to say goodbye. Politicians and police officers dictated who we could see and where we could go. And more than 200,000 people died of Covid-19 in the UK. “The bits of the body that were responding to living in this disaster, the adrenalin, the cortisol, the fatigue…” She paused. “I think people are in denial about how much they put into trying to survive this.”

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Many people share a sense that the UK is now falling apart. It’s hard to keep track of the constant strikes. Every day there are new headlines about the dire state of the NHS. It doesn’t seem like politicians have a grip on the multiple looming crises. I told her that everything feels hard, in some ways harder than it did during lockdown. Easthope said that she is not surprised when people describe feeling this way. While she was waiting for me to arrive, she heard two women at the table next to us wonder why they both felt so weary and burned out. “You rarely meet disaster-affected communities who are going ‘I got a great night’s sleep’,” she observed: perhaps the only surprising aspect is that we struggle to recognise these feelings as proportionate and expected.

Easthope believes it was inevitable that the full damage of Covid – not only the death counts but the psychological toll on survivors, the impact on children’s education, the economic consequences – would only start to become apparent three or four years after the initial horror. In other words: now. She said she tried to warn officials of the long-term consequences during pandemic crisis meetings, only to be rebuffed and ignored, “like Cassandra”. She was similarly dismissed in the years before the coronavirus outbreak. Easthope ran regular pandemic planning exercises with the government, in which her warnings of potential challenges were met with “euphemisms” and “hubris”.

Easthope argues that the government is making the problem worse by being reluctant to properly name the trauma of what people have lived through. Politicians refused to refer to Covid as “the D word” – disaster – at the time, and they’re still refusing now. “Only if you call this the D word do you start to see the damage.” 

[See also: Lucy Easthope reflects on life after catastrophe]

Easthope was only a child when she started thinking about disasters. The daughter of two teachers, she grew up in Liverpool and had classmates who were at the fateful 1989 football match at Hillsborough Stadium at which a human crush would result in 97 deaths. She writes of the aftermath in her book: of being ten years old and trying to process the incomprehensible calamity, of her shock at realising that sometimes the people in charge “make terrible mistakes. And when they do, often it is the communities that have already been failed who are blamed.” 

It’s just one example of how the book deftly weaves together her professional experiences with more personal ones. Easthope writes of her grief after suffering multiple miscarriages (she now has two children, aged eight and 11). She spoke to me about being failed by the NHS: “It was never on a pedestal for me. I find it so traumatic because I’ve had such bad experiences of care.” Her husband, Tom, used to be a pilot and in one passage she recounts coming home to him from the site of a plane crash. She smelled of jet fuel; he instantly regretted asking why.

“Nothing is unfixable – apart from the very worst things that I see”.

She said that she has noticed readers are always interested in Tom. Much of what she writes about is almost unimaginably devastating, but strangers to the world of disasters can find comfort in the quiet strength of their relationship. She believes this is one reason the book has had such an impact. It was a Sunday Times bestseller, and Rowan Williams described it in these pages as “a profoundly moral book”. When we spoke, Easthope could not mention her husband without smiling. She credits him with keeping the darkness of her work from destroying her home life. “Tom provides a very strict boundary that I would not be able to maintain myself,” she said. “He forces me to not constantly bring this home just by being.”

The other reason the book has resonated, she thinks, is quite simply that “people needed it”. They needed their experiences of living through Covid to be recognised, and for someone who has seen it all – the bodies, the grief, the hopelessness – to tell them that, while it will take longer than anyone admitted at the time, things will get better. Her work on disasters has taught her that communities do heal from the most unthinkable tragedies, provided they fully recognise and account for what they have lost.

Speaking to Easthope evokes a bewildering mixture of optimism and fury. She is damning about the way the government both mismanaged the pandemic and has failed to learn its lessons. She visited a relative in hospital recently, and was struck by how we’ve started to compare hospitals to war zones. We are close to “looking like a failed state”: “people not being able to eat, people not being able to heat, people getting into hospital dying of absolutely treatable conditions”. She said she accepts that tragedy is a fact of living – ours is a “high-risk world” – but the current state of affairs is painfully avoidable.

At the same time, she retains remarkable faith in people’s ability to heal and hope for the future. I asked her how she managed to keep despair at bay. She said that her job has given her perspective; she finds it easy to feel gratitude for small pleasures. A “mega-eavesdropper”, she had recently overheard two “gorgeous young people” agonising over their life choices: one had been offered a new job, but it meant they would have to move. The couple were wracked with anxiety, but listening to them she wished she could reassure them that “nothing is unfixable – apart from the very worst things that I see”.

When The Dust Settles is published in paperback 30 March 2023.

[See also: The anger and hope the earthquake left behind]

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