26 May 2022

How to cope with disaster - from a world-leading expert

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 26 May 2022

Professor Lucy Easthope is one of the world's foremost disaster planners.

Her first major job in emergency planning was responding to 9/11 and since then, her career has covered many other major disasters, including the Boxing Day tsunami, the London bombings, the Christchurch earthquakes, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shot down over Ukraine, and the Grenfell Tower fire.

It's Easthope's job to help get the bodies identified, repatriate survivors, return personal effects, look after the bereaved, and advise governments for the future.

Earlier this year she released her memoir When the Dust Settles: Stories of Love, Loss and Hope from an Expert in Disaster.

Lucy Easthope

Photo: Supplied

Easthope tells Kathryn Ryan that New Zealand’s long history of good risk management and disaster planning has been of great help in the UK.

“Both our countries, UK and New Zealand, constantly compile lists of those risks and it is the job of disaster planners like myself to foresee them essentially, to be ready with the plans and then my particular area of work is to look at the aftermath so I plan for what happens if the disaster comes to reality.”

She still uses New Zealand’s guidance to this day, recently to help with the recovery of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in which 72 people died.

“That was the hardest chapter to write [in the memoir] really.

“The aftermath of the earthquakes where fire played a huge part in the death toll in Canterbury had really informed me and I had spent about three years developing a scenario of an urban fire in a UK town centre.

“There was a number of worries within that, I was very concerned we’d run down our ability to respond to that and so I presented the final findings of that work on the 13th of June 2017 and at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon I was described by a colleague in the meeting as a ‘fantasist’.

“The tower burnt down about six hours later.”

But it’s not uncommon for disaster planners’ to be brushed aside, she says.

“It’s really shocked people to read in the UK, where we’ve had a very bad time with the pandemic, that it [the pandemic] was our most diligently planned for risk.

“And really the way that it’s been sold to the public over the last two years here in the UK, was that it wasn’t planned for, it was a complete surprise, it was unique, it was unprecedented.

“So it’s not unusual, I would say, for me to have a hard fight when the thing is still just a threat or a possibility and then afterwards we get accused of hindsight so you do have to have a very tough skin sometimes in disaster management.”

But no matter where a disaster strikes, the same principles apply in that bereaved families have the right to their loved one’s body, the right to information, and the right to have personal items returned to them, she says.

“Sometimes the person can’t get a body back, sometimes there isn’t a body to return and we will perhaps find that some jewellery or a debit card or a pen has survived and that tells a story.

“Sometimes it’s only when we’ve returned say a piece of jewellery or a passport, the person has accepted that maybe they were fighting it up until that point, so they’re hugely important.

“I’ve had no claims at all for a Rolex watch … and then thousands of people over the years wanting pens and scarves and pieces of clothing, really sometimes quite mundane – chopped receipts, tilled receipts that show somebody’s had breakfast – it turns the idea of value on its head and that’s been a privilege to see as well.”

Protecting the remains of loved ones is just as important, she says, recounting having asked for a hawk in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to deter scavenging pigeons.

“Those moments in the book seem to really uplift people, the idea that even in the most extreme settings, there are people who go to help and there are people who think of ways to protect the scene.”

It can feel like we’re all disaster survivors now because of the pandemic, she says, but she doesn’t believe the world is in any more crisis than it has been.

“If you are feeling very anxious or worried about kind of the state of the world, leave that disaster planners and risk managers and those who work on that and just do look after yourselves in the community and look at perhaps how you’re consuming the news.

“What I also see is a lot of greatness within a community [during pandemics], so start local … start looking after each other in your own family and then spread outwards.”

Lucy Easthope is a 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. She is also a Research Associate at the Joint Centre for Disaster Research, Massey University, New Zealand