The Interview: Lucy Easthope

Disaster management expert Lucy Easthope talks about her work dealing with major catastrophes

Photo: ©Caitlin Chescoe

Lucy Easthope’s job titles make you stop a moment. She is – read it properly now – an expert in disaster management, Professor in Practice of Risk and Hazard at the University of Durham, and Fellow in Mass Fatalities and Pandemics at the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath. 

Well, yes. But what does this mean, in reality?

It means turning up after the police, paramedics and forensics, with a plan for how to deal with what’s left, and care for who is left: the survivors, the bereaved, the helpers themselves, and the dead. It means bringing her experience of all the other disasters she’s known. It means Disaster Victim Identification (DVI), where “victims” often means scraps of bone and flesh, teeth and ash, and where pathologists, anthropologists and odontologists work at the naming of parts. It’s mentally challenging, emotionally extreme, and physically relentless. And there’s a great deal of admin.

What we all really want is a woman who knows what she’s doing when it comes to disasters

This clear-blue-eyed, cheerful, charismatic woman is expert not just in responding to disasters but also in recovering from them – a long job, that ebbs and flows. Recovery is a chronic condition. She advises governments, including our own. She travels the world in response to tsunamis, terrorist attacks, floods, nuclear accidents, air crashes, fires, earthquakes and wars. Her first job was sourcing mortuary workers to go to New York after 9/11 for Kenyon International (“Kenyon International Emergency Services offers a set of integrated, configurable solutions to help private and public organisations manage the consequences of an incident,” it says on their website.

“Kenyon works extensively in the mass fatality arena…”). Recently she’s been trying to help steer covid responses so they are not just effective, but long-term effective. Aftermaths can be terrible, and they are not finite.

Today, though, Professor Easthope – Lucy – has been recording for TV, and to her own amusement is wearing what she calls “Channel Five eyebrows” – thick and black – on top of a level of foundation you just know is not her usual look. Her publicist is delayed: the British Library won’t allow his suitcase in (she and I both appreciate the mild irony).

After twenty years working in a bleak area about which most of us will never have to know, Lucy Easthope is having a moment. She has written a book, When The Dust Settles: a poignant, funny, analytical and profoundly humane collection of “stories of love, loss and hope” from a lifetime in this compelling and complex world. And, as she points out, it’s a love story. And, I should mention, extremely well written: this is no trite string of ghoulish anecdotes.

The day we meet, When The Dust Settles is being serialised on BBC Radio Four. It’s received rave reviews across the board, written by writers who, I suspect, (like me) half-wish they too had had a serious, go-deep job doing difficult things. It turns out that as we lurch from the disaster of covid to the disaster of Russia’s war in Ukraine, under the umbrella of the disaster of climate change, what we all really want is a woman who knows what she’s doing when it comes to disasters.

Lucy wonders whether her dramatic birth – an emergency vertical-cut Caesarian where her mother was close to death – may have set her on this course. Does she believe in luck? “I smile at the fates sometimes,” she says, smiling now. She’s a Liverpudlian, and the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster was significant for her. Lucy was ten. “I was watching TV – it wasn’t live, it came on later as a broadcast on Grandstand. And my Dad says, ‘What on earth’s going on?’ And then, over the coming days, ‘This is terrible!’ and he’s shouting at the screen, ‘Somebody needs to sort this!’ And I just took it as direction.”

“It’s not just me,” she says. “We see a lot of children, in places like Amatrice after the earthquake in Italy, [grow up to] become disaster activists. So that helped me to give Hillsborough the weight it deserved in my story.  When somebody would ask, ‘How did you get into this?’ I’d give a very under-explored answer. You didn’t want to try and claim the Hillsborough grief as your own. You’re very wary of the hierarchy.”

The hierarchy of grief is something all bereaved people know about; and many recognise, too, the urge to claim more involvement than perhaps one quite has a right to. That’s easy to sneer at, but Lucy is more generous. “It’s often how we centre ourselves,” she says, “and make a link. In the first 24 hours of the invasion, people were saying, ‘Do you know a Ukrainian? Do you know somebody there?’ They want to articulate what they’re feeling.”

Her father’s imprecation, “Sort this!”, can apply to so much, from the everyday to the massive (though as Lucy points out the massive is everyday: disasters are happening all the time, just not necessarily to us, which allows us to be appalled by them when they do). Lucy shares her knowledge on Twitter.

Donated items are described as “the second disaster” by responders, and it’s much preferred that money is given

She’s made important points about safeguarding, when volunteers take in Ukrainian refugee families: how traffickers move fast; that billeting in homes is very disruptive and that although huge temporary villages may not look good they are better in the long run for keeping communities together. She’s insistent that giving money to existing organisations is more efficient than shipping items to a disaster zone, as in #cashnotstuff.

“There are decades of research into what may cause further harm. Analysis of past tragedies provides a fascinating insight into the things that people sent that caused further problems on arrival,” she says. “Kippers to the widows of the Gresford colliery disaster in 1934, alongside letters that suggested that, now they find themselves on hard times, widows might want to consider being taken in by the writers. Motivations may not always be wholesome!

Donated items, often soiled or damaged, are described as “the second disaster” by responders, and it’s much preferred that money is given to established and well-governed charities. It’s a challenge – people assume that food, toys, medicine and clothes would be just what people need but we can buy that better and safer and just as quickly. A key principle we use in training is to think about how you might want to be treated in this situation – would you want to pull on somebody else’s unwashed socks?”

She’s boldly expressed her frustration about the government’s declarations during the pandemic, that “this is all new, we’re all in it together.” “It may’ve been new to them; it wasn’t to us,” she says drily. “We assumed we’d be listened to.” What disaster management teams needed was engagement; what they got was delays and postponements and the discovery that PPE stockpiles developed since pandemic planning began in 2004 simply weren’t there. She smiles as she refers to herself and her colleagues as “Cassandras”, but her purpose is steely.

 “We need to prioritise and resource emergency planning, prioritise compassion, put the people affected at the heart of arrangements. We need to lose the overwhelming focus on optics. And we need to do so much more for child food and fuel poverty – you can’t respond to any crisis when we are living in perpetual crisis.” What’s the worst thing? “People forgetting, repeating the same mistakes. Cruelty from politicians.”

Lucy’s parents are teachers, her uncle and aunt both coroners. Helping and “needing to know” clearly run in the family, and if one theme runs through both the book and Lucy herself, it is the constant dance between intensely personal experiences and the universality of community experience and public responsibility. The disasters may be huge, but she remembers them, she says, by the personal effects.

Her job is deeply practical, involving logistics, in the midst of chaos and heartbreak (mortuaries for how many? what kind of coffins – children’s/ geriatrics’/ young men’s?) but, she writes, “the aftermath of the London bombings of 7 July, 2005 was all about… Tupperware filled with salad, wallets, blown-off clothing… wheelie bags, laptops and the thick paper wodge of a near-to-submission PhD thesis, still being annotated up until the point that the bomb exploded.”

Taking home items to families who’ve lost people is a large part of her work. Nobody, she believes, should make assumptions about what property people may or may not want returned, or in what state.

“Every family is entitled to their own story,” she says, referring not just to the story of their individual loved-one’s death, but also to the whole family’s story. She is exceptionally loyal to her fellow workers: the police, social workers and forensic anthropologists, mortuary staff, pathologists, undertakers. Support for them, she says, is among her first priorities when examining any disaster management plan. For them and for her, the hardest part is going home. One of the conversations she’s never not had with people involved with disaster is the one about how they aren’t talking about it at home.

“My work recently has brought me into the path of contact tracers who worked during the pandemic, on the phone all day, and sometimes they were the last person… well they know now that they were the last person somebody spoke to. Sometimes the person hadn’t eaten for three days, and they were sorting them out food. The contact tracers were mainly women, drafted in from administrative roles. You go from disaster to disaster and you see people co-opted in. So for Grenfell, for example, it was the social workers. You know – [you’re encouraged to] apply on this hyperlink here to become a social worker. And all of a sudden you’re working on this horrific event. And what happens is, your family don’t adjust as quickly as you.”

There are other reasons for communicating well at home. “Confidentiality. You’re tired. And it’s not being able to articulate it. With the military, it’s similar to what happened with Vietnam. The Iraq conflict became soiled. So you couldn’t go: ‘I’m really proud of last year.’ It wasn’t something that people were being terribly honoured for. I put out a tweet about being so impressed and proud of these women. Hadn’t given it a second thought. And immediately a load of tweets come back saying it was a waste of money, all the Dido Harding stuff. Very similar to what we do to our soldiers. It’s that constant lens for me.”

In the book, Lucy mentions motels that keep the bar open for disaster workers who are going to be back late. Is alcohol a big part of this world? Lucy doesn’t drink herself but agrees that it is.  She encourages the use of parks and gardens, where workers can “have tea and a biscuit, and just talk” without drink being an issue. It’s not just about self-medication. There’s also the macho “camaraderie of the pub” which is something she’s tried to dismantle somewhat, even though it can be a great comfort. She believes it’s part of the system whereby people who are female or gay or of colour are welcome in institutions – so long as they behave like straight white men.

“A space can be 50/50, but if the 50 per cent of women have to emulate men to be there at all,” she says, “that means nothing.” She’s already at a disadvantage for not being police or forensics, and for being a woman. Time is wasted having to win men over, explain herself, and look for allies she’s worked with before. She mentions the stereotype of the combative Scouser, but not in the way you might expect:

“It can be hugely unifying – people can be very supportive. I blend in. Sometimes there’s affinity, and people root for you.” She’s certainly a fighter, but above all she’s a unifier, a communicator. She has had arthritis since youth, and is dyspraxic: “I do wonder if my dyspraxia (now I understand a bit more about it) is a factor in seeing the world differently. I’m hugely understanding of the voices that don’t get heard in disaster, and very conscious of ableism.”

The difficulty in going home became very personal for Lucy. “For, me,” she says, “it’s always been about having to immediately get back into another role.” She of all people knows that “there are two worlds, and as soon as you step into one you leave the other behind, even mid-sentence.”

“Policing, in areas like body recovery and disaster victim identification, is very, very hard on a marriage”

As a responder, she feels it happening: “You carry yourself differently. Sit up. Gird yourself, eye contact. I train girls about this. They’re always looking down, can’t raise their eyes.” She has “planthems”: the right music to inspire herself for what she needs to do. Kanye and Eminem get her going for site work. I tell her I can’t think straight if I don’t have a bra on; she tells me about her special red fleece: protective, snug, comforting, emboldening.

Returning home from work, she plays show tunes, or has a kitchen disco with her children. But the changeover is not clean-cut: “There was a moment in February 2020 where we were doing the excess death planning for the pandemic. I came out of one call and there were the children waiting at the bottom of the stairs, wanting their tea.”

Home is where the love story comes in. She talks of a “gauze” developing between her and her husband, Tom: “It becomes quite worrying. You know, where are we going to go with this? With a lot of my colleagues, their relationships don’t survive. Policing, particularly in areas like body recovery and disaster victim identification, is very, very hard on a marriage. The first time Tom read the book was because the lawyers asked him to. We’d stopped sharing the specifics long before.”

I suggest that when soldiers are fighting to protect something – peace, say, or innocence – and then they go home and tell the people they’re protecting what they’ve had to do to protect them, that in itself can destroy the peace and innocence.

“Yes,” she says. “And there’s a shared experience with these environments, the battlefield, the mortuary. Because you can’t describe the fabric of it, nothing else makes sense. The conversations have no context. One of the best examples of that is about the feet and the limbs.”

Ah yes.

It’s not always easy in war to know how soldiers are going to be killed, or if they are more likely to be maimed. (Lucy was organising body bag provision before the Iraq war even started.) One of many strong, unforgettable images she offers the reader is that of a coffin, sent out in expectation of dead bodies, returning to the military airbase at Brize Norton full of feet.

“How do you go from that day, which I’m incredibly proud of, whatever the politics around the Iraq conflict… how do you pack up your bag and go on a weekend break with your family and they say, ‘What have you done this week?’ People quite understandably say: ‘We don’t understand what you do.’ I’d say, ‘Oh, I work in disaster planning. I’ve just had a busy week.’ ‘But a busy week on what?’ ‘Oh, Brize Norton.’ ‘But that’s handled by military…’”

How can one be clear about dreadful things with people who don’t get that world, don’t want to, and perhaps shouldn’t have to? It’s about emotional and physical understanding as much as factual or intellectual. “One of the biggest challenges with Brize Norton was that for months and months it was just lots and lots… and lots… of young men. And, it doesn’t have to become traumatic, but things like flashbacks, imagery, nightmares serve an important place in the human brain working through trauma.” Lucy has so far been very articulate and voluble. Now her speaking slows. “And one of the things I’d really struggle with was coming home to Tom.” Himself a young man at the time.

In disaster response training you learn not to go home straight away. Lucy mentions the Korean War, when soldiers were brought back in boats, so they could benefit from the longer journey home. We talk about Odysseus, the ten years of sex and drugs it took him to get back to Penelope.

“One of the biggest outpourings and reactions that I’ve had,” she says, “is to that line, ‘the hardest part is going home’. A couple of coppers and colleagues I know have really struggled to process the pain, and they’ve just sent me a photo of that line.” Colleagues have also thanked her – “well, punched me on the arm” – for bringing their murky, upsetting, discreet, confidential world into the light. They’ve said, she tells me, they’d given her book to their partner, “just sort of slid it across to them.” It’s not that communication causes reconciliation, but certainly there’s no reconciliation without communication.

For the bereaved themselves, reconciliation is fraught. Lucy is profound in her respect for the dead, in particular for the disastrous dead. Every religion and basic humanity, requires that the dead be dealt with appropriately. Look at Antigone! So, what if you have no body? Or, what if you have only feet? DNA, initially a wonder-tool for DVI, has proved a dreadful rabbit hole.

Can it be right that a family such as the Petroccelli, who lost their son on 9/11, should be contacted five times with ever more bits of their child, scraps that have emerged and now need – what? Their own funeral? “It’s very painful,” she says, “to see everyone presuming what families want, rather than taking the time to sit down and carefully negotiate with them what might be possible. Families don’t get a chance to opt out of some of these processes.”

I’m reminded of the first Marquess of Anglesey, whose amputated leg had its own grave on the field of Waterloo. Mary Shelley kept her dead husband’s heart on her desk. I still wonder about my grandfather’s arm from 1918. Lucy writes movingly and funnily about her father’s finger: “Who are we to censor what works for healing? When my dad cut off his finger on a bandsaw… the nurses brought it out to him, he… bid it a fond farewell before it was taken to the hospital incinerator.”

We mind so much what happens to our dear dead flesh. But a line must be drawn, and Lucy argues warmly for the bereaved to be left alone, after a while, to know they’ve done the right thing, and to get on with being alive. What she calls “the right steps” must be taken so the dead individual can be properly acknowledged. But what steps are “right” can vary with circumstance. Why dig a body up from an earthquake or avalanche, at great upset and all kinds of difficulty, only to bury them again? “Let me sleep,” as the unquiet corpse says in the old folk song. Which lets the bereaved sleep too.

Survivors have their own vulnerabilities. Lucy recalls a roofer working on her parents’ home, who took one look at her and ran away: years before he had fainted in her arms at a mortuary, where he was identifying a brother soldier. And at a conference, she and a man she’d met under similar circumstances (and hadn’t seen since) had such an intense reaction that people thought they must be having an affair.

“I really struggle,” she says, “with the way people consider themselves, if they’ve survived, as lucky. I was at a conference with a mix of bereaved and survivors. One survivor did a talk about how they knew now that they were both lucky and blessed. And that was bone-crushingly awful to sit through knowing that the bereaved mothers were next to you…  luck is a very interesting one.

You can see the things that [people] try to articulate that don’t come from Western thinking, you know, life and serendipity, not traditional things. And one we’ve struggled with is, what is the role of faith and fatalism and all these things, that might have been quite strong protective factors? I just say there’s good stars and bad stars.” The very word disaster comes from the Latin dis and aster, meaning ill-starred.

There are terrible ironies and coincidences in her book that you could never get away with in a novel

Lucy has been through, or close to, an exceptional number of dreadful things, not just in the course of her work but in her own life, since as a child of eight she sailed past the Herald of Free Enterprise, half sunk outside Zeebrugge, gazing and wondering how people could have known which stairs to take when a ship is on its side. “There’s certainly nothing odd,” she says, “about seeing so many disasters when you’ve chosen this as your career. And you become desirable, actually, by your presence at multiple disasters because for the next one you’ve got a real frame of reference.”

But when you’re just going about your business, it’s different surely? She was on the tube in London on 7 July, 2005. Her husband, a pilot, nearly got on the Smiler at Alton Towers on the day it crashed in 2015. He flew British tourists to Tunisia who were involved in the terrorist attack there that same year, and flew survivors back as well, reading to them a script of comfort that Lucy had written. She too has had cause to follow her own guidelines. She is heartbreaking on how it is to miscarry in a public loo at a disaster management conference. Where can respect and honouring the flesh be then?

There are terrible ironies and coincidences in her book that you could never get away with in a novel. She recalls editors wanting to remove the rollercoaster incident “because ‘the reader is going to think you’re completely mad, you’re always at these things.’ And I refused. That isn’t my view. One of the newspaper reviews,” she says, “used the word ‘obsessed’, which made my husband laugh. ‘She’d been obsessed with disaster.’”

On 7/7, Lucy commandeered a cab, whose driver kept staring at her in the rear-view mirror. “He told me why he had been a bit wary when I had jumped in shouting, ‘Heathrow please!’ Eighteen years earlier, on the night of the King’s Cross fire, a man had leapt into his cab and demanded to go to Heathrow, too. ‘I looked round,’ said the cab driver, ‘and he was a little bit on fire. I had to say to him, mate, you’re on fire.’ So the driver had been looking in the mirror wondering if I was a little bit on fire too.”

She kind of is.

As we leave, re-passing our table on the other side of a glass wall, ever-aware Lucy spots my glove, abandoned on a chair, maybe fifteen yards away and barely visible. Tiny disaster averted. As we part, I say: “I’m about to say I love you so I should probably just run.”

“I love you too,” she says. I believe her. I think it’s all about love.

Professor Lucy Easthope is the UK’s leading authority on recovering from disaster. She has a degree in law, a PhD in medicine and a Masters in risk, crisis and disaster management. She is also Professor in Practice of Risk and Hazard at the University of Durham and Fellow in Mass Fatalities and Pandemics at the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. Her book “When the Dust Settles, Stories of Love, Loss and Hope from an Expert in Disaster” is published by Hodder

Louisa Young’s latest novel, “Twelve Months and a Day”, Borough Press (HarperCollins) comes out on 9 June

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