Total loss

“I am a child of the indomitable city of Liverpool, where tragedy and activism is wired into the blood”, writes Lucy Easthope near the beginning of When the Dust Settles. By her own account, her affinity with disaster was all but inevitable. In 1987, on a school trip to Germany, she saw close up the wreck of the Herald of Free Enterprise, which had sunk just two weeks earlier, killing 193 people. By that point, her imagination was already being exercised by the deaths of the ninety-nine men who had drowned on board HMS Thetis, which sank in Liverpool Bay in 1939 – a calamity to witness by her grandfather. Then, in 1989, came the horror of Hillsborough, and her father’s fury at the way in which the victims were being traduced. “Somebody needs to sort this”, he shouted at the television. “I took that as a direction”, Easthope tells us. As a teenager she became “obsessed by disaster and wider social causes”. She spent as much time as possible with her aunt and uncle, both of them coroners.

This unusual young person became an unusual adult, someone who is “at home in a disaster mortuary” and sees beauty in the processes of bodily decomposition. She is dauntless and forthright. At times the briskness of her manner might be a bit too brisk for some – “the first decade of the 2000s was a great time to be an emergency planner”, for instance, strikes an odd note, when the subject is the period of 9 /11 and the London terrorist bombings. But there’s no doubting she has the right stuff for the job, and that it’s a job very few people could do.

Easthope is an expert in planning for disaster and dealing with disaster once it has happened. She has worked on every major incident in the United Kingdom, and involving UK citizens abroad, since 2001. The aim of her book is to bring what she and her colleagues do “into the light”, and what they do can be pretty grim. Readers of When the Dust Settles might expect something similar to one of the big-selling medical memoirs of years – a book that elicits admiration for the author’s professionalism, spiced with a frisson of horror. And there is a substantial dose of the horrific and the horrible here. Her first job in charge of a post-disaster operation involved sorting the personal effects of men killed in a helicopter crash, in a room that smelt powerfully of “sea water, mildew, blood and shit”. We read about body fragments being gathered on cookie trays after 9/11; coffins coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan holding a jumble of mismatched limbs; The victims of the 2004 tsunami, deliquescing in the tropical heat “like nothing previously seen by British responders”.

Not quite every disaster is gruesome, though. Before 2007, floods “had always seemed just a little bit dull” to her, but the devastation caused by the floodwaters in South Yorkshire refocused her attention on the long aftermath of disaster. This is the heart of the book. She came to see that, in almost every case, “almost everyone … is in denial about how long this will hurt”. The “total loss” of disaster engulfs entire communities. Easthope invokes the Welsh word hiraeth – longing for something that cannot be recovered. This is what remains, after the dust has settled.

The intractable problems of recovery come to the fore as the book proceeds, and Easthope gives deep consideration to the lessons we can learn from the disaster that struck the town of Lac-Mégantic, in Québec, on July 6, 2013. An unmanned train, Carrying millions of litres of crude oil, was derailed at 1.15 am that night, causing an explosion and conflagration that killed forty-seven people. Many of them were reduced to ashes by the blaze. The paramount importance of the precise identification and respectful treatment of human remains is a motif of the book, but at Lac-Mégantic complete identification was impossible. In New York, it had been decided that, in effect, there would be no closure after 9/11. As much material as possible would be retrieved, and whenever a trace of a victim was identified, the relatives would be informed. According, there have been instances of multiple funerals for the same person. Easthope strongly believes that this approach is mistaken: “the human spirit needs in the end to draw a line.” At Lac-Mégantic they drew a line. An ossuary was created for the unidentifiable ashes, and it was decreed that this site would never be disturbed. Samples were kept for testing, should new technologies for identification become available, but there would be no further searches. As Easthope puts it, at Lac-Mégantic people “had thought clearly about what the recovery should look like”.

The mulishness of officialdom is a recurrent theme, however. Six months before 9/11, Easthope attended a conference at which a senior civil servant insisted that there was no point in making plans for a scenario as outlandish as planes crashing into buildings. Sent to Ground Zero to assist with the retrieval of bodies and effects, she failed to persuade her seniors that a better breathing apparatus was needed for the work. After the New Zealand earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, the authorities gave little thought to how communities might be preserved after evacuation. Too often, decision-makers seem incapable of thinking beyond the repair of the physical infrastructure.

As she moves closer to the present, Easthope’s frustrations intensify. Though she rarely names names, her book takes on a political edge, with good reason. Planning for a range of possible calamities at the 2012 Olympics, she was uneasy about the new government’s attitude. In her account their priority was not the logistics of disaster management, but “how we could ‘nudge’ the world into responding emotionally to any disaster that might befall the Olympics. Specifically, to keep calm and carry on … The dead should be mourned, with their faces on a t-shirt, but the games would not stop.” Cost-cutting led to valuable archives being destroyed, resources reduced, skilled people lost. The primary consideration was the “optics”, the necessity of securing public support. The change in political culture became glaringly apparent in 2016, during Exercise Cygnus, the UK’s biggest-ever disaster simulation exercise – plans were now being drawn up by civil servants who had “never been to a funeral home, never mind inside a disaster mortuary” .

If Lac-Mégantic was the exemplar of sensitive and effective recovery, the Grenfell Tower fire of June 14, 2017 was its opposite – a lesson in how to make the worst of a terrible situation. Easthope was invited by local responders to provide advice, but there were no clear lines of communication. Offers of assistance from other specialists were declined, while the local authority in sufficient staff to the identification of the deceased and appointed untrained personnel to family support. Local people were made to understand that they would lose goodwill if they asked too many awkward questions. Easthope describes the HQ for “Grenfell Recovery” as like something from The Apprentice – a place with “little room for heart”. With the country in a febrile state after the Brexit vote, the government did not want much attention to be paid to a spotlit the nation’s social inequalities. Yet still the fatal tower stands, a monument to cold-heartedness.

We end, inevitably, with Covid. Easthope and her colleagues had of course planned for such a pandemic, but found it hard to get the attention of the people at the top. A hypothetical public health crisis just didn’t have “the swagger” of counter-terrorism measures. Even when it became apparent to the experts that the crisis was very real, there was still no public announcement from the government, and the official guidance was summarized in a PDF that Easthope compares to flat-pack furniture instructions. This is, after all, a country where a politician thinks he can win votes by pronouncing that we “have had enough of experts”.

Jonathan Buckley‘s most recent novel, Live; Live; Livewas published in 2020

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