The world expert on dealing with disaster, from terror attacks to fires to floods, has written a handbook on crisis management
In 2015, with a small baby and a toddler in tow, Lucy Easthope and her husband Tom – a pilot – took an overnight trip to Alton Towers in Staffordshire.
She had gone there a lot as a child and loved it, and now there was newly opened tree-house accommodation, CBeebies Land, and a great swimming pool to explore.
It should have been a nice mini-break for Easthope and her family, an interlude of good old-fashioned fun to distract her “brain full of disaster bees”.
Instead, however, as her husband got ready to ride the roller coaster, Lucy’s instincts screamed that this was a bad idea. The park seemed a bit hectic, the day was a bit windy, it all felt a bit... off.
As she writes in her book When the Dust Settles, “every sinew” told her they should flee fast as they could from the theme park.
As the UK’s leading authority and adviser on management of and recovery from disaster, Easthope knew this feeling.
She also understood that her work could cause her to overly anticipate disaster at every turn. Further, as a woman working in disaster, she was practised at keeping quiet about such rumblings of foreboding – too often dismissed in that very male environment as excessively emotional and even hysterical.
So, they stayed put at Alton Towers.
Tom went on the roller coaster, though not the new Smiler ride, as the queues were too long. That afternoon, a full carriage of The Smiler crashed into an empty train lying idle on the track. The roller coaster was traveling in winds of 46mph, although it was not supposed to operate in wind speeds above 34mph. It took hours to get some of the most badly injured passengers free. Some lost their lower limbs and the park’s owners were ultimately fined £5m.
After that, Easthope’s colleagues joked that they should start calling her Jonah.
Over a Zoom from her home in the UK, Easthope laughs heartily at this nickname, even though she does not regard any of the disasters she has encountered – from 9/11, through the 2004 tsumani and 7/7 bombings, to Grenfell and Covid – as remotely amusing.
But neither is she someone who regards disaster and tragedy as exceptional.
Life and her work have led Easthope to believe that it’s not a question of if disaster will strike, but when.
So why wouldn’t it be her, or her family, who are there when a roller coaster crashes? Why shouldn’t her husband have been the pilot who brought holiday makers to Tunisia in 2016, where some of them were shot dead by a terrorist on the beach while they sunbathed?
It even felt weirdly fitting that, when she had the first of many miscarriages (before identification of a blood-clotting issue allowed her carry two babies to full term), the form they filled out to indicate handling of remains had been initially devised by Easthope herself, in response to the Alder Hey organs scandal in the 1990s.
For Easthope – who is Liverpool born and raised – it was a football disaster that first prompted her to ask the questions of how, why and what next?
She’s not sure if it was nature or nurture made her this way – though she says one of her two daughters is exactly the same.
“My mum is staying with me at the moment,” Easthope says, “and she’s just read the book and I think she found it really, really hard.
"I think she’s pondering where they went wrong, that maybe they should have pushed me towards being an accountant, or sought some more psychiatric intervention.
“Apparently the first time I showed an interest in disaster was after the Bradford City fire, and I grilled my dad on what was happening. I think it’s an innate interest. It’s a different way of seeing the world.
“I think there’s an intensity in me that was always there. And it’s difficult, because I don’t know how else it would have been channeled. I find my tribe in professionals like risk and security and disaster and crisis management. We’re often quite similar, we’re often quite... I think the modern term would be quite neurodivergent.”
With a degree in law, a PhD in medicine and a masters in risk, crisis and disaster management, Easthope’s first big job in her field was after 9/11, when she worked for a company involved in repatriation of UK citizens. She learnt a lot on that job that informed her future career, about things that other people find it hard to think about.
For example – and this happened after 9/11 – if you return partial remains to a family many times over (as those remains are found over a long period of time), that family might have multiple funerals and never feel able to put a line under that process.
It’s horrible stuff to ponder – but someone has to do it, and Easthope clearly does it very well. This has led to a role where she’s not just on the ground as soon as something awful happens, but is taking lessons from one disaster to draw up better practices for the next.
Lessons from 9/11 worked to help the people of Lac-Mégantic, Canada, in 2013, when an unmanned fuel cargo train crashed into the town, killing 47 people.
Easthope advised that, to move forward, the town needed to put a time limit on how long they tried to identify remains, and then they should build an ossuary in a public place, ultimately shaped like an angel, to hold and commemorate the unidentified.
Lac-Mégantic healed, Easthope says.
“In this work,” Easthope says,”you meet a lot of professionals and you meet a lot of survivors. And you meet a lot of people with their heads in their hands, who claim to represent the pain, but didn’t suffer the pain.”
She’s trying to explain how, in her business, there is a danger in identifying too closely with the disasters you deal with and the people who suffer because of them.
You are no use to the survivors, she says, if you wrap yourself up in their tragedy too tightly.
“After I was on Newsnight recently,” she says, “Somebody said to me, ‘Oh, your face doesn’t look haggard enough.’ But what does that mean? I mean, it’s quite misogynistic and, you know... good face creams?
“But also, I’m not a bereaved mother. My life is blessed. But I want people to know that there are people who can help and will help in their hardest times.
“What I try to convey in the book is that if you want to do my job, you have to calm yourself, to silence yourself. You have more time than you think. You pause.
“I don’t always put that into practice, but I’m better than I used to be. And I’m married to a man who’s a pilot. What pilots learn about is the startle factor. You have to control it in a crisis and then act.
“I just wish a few more people in the Ukrainian situation we have now would learn to manage their startle factor. Just sit with it and work it through.”
Right now, Easthope explains, after more than two years of living with the pandemic, we are all disaster survivors. Her experience is that most people — and more often women — will resist that definition, unless they have lost someone or suffered badly through Covid.
“There’s a sort of hierarchical idea around how much you are involved in a disaster, that allows you to call yourself a survivor.
“After the New Zealand earthquake, we did a lot of work on this, and on recovery guidance, which is all about how the trauma is felt in your body, the burnout checklist.
“Because even though our brains, all the way through the pandemic and the lockdowns, were saying, ‘This is normal. I’m not let out of the house. This is fine,’ our bodies were being flooded with cortisol and were screaming that this was a disaster.”
“So, in a way, the pandemic is actually worse than a more obvious disaster – because we haven’t really been able to explain and understand how it has made us feel.
“It’s not as simple as running away from a sabre-toothed tiger, so we end up at this two-year point of fatigue, exhaustion, insomnia, irritable bowel, a lot of respiratory issues... People are exhausted.
“I remember at the early stages of the first lockdown, talking about if we should tell people how long the pandemic might last, and it was, ‘No, that will make it even worse.’”
This state of exhausted fight or flight, Easthope says, has damaged our ability to manage our startle response when it comes to Ukraine.
She worries about snap decisions made out of good intentions, and says she’ll end up having herself cancelled on social media soon for her mantra that you should give cash, not stuff.
Easthope points out that in the UK, they are only now finding answers and proper accommodation for Afghan refugees who arrived there last autumn. She worries that placing Ukrainian refugees in people’s homes is a short-term solution that could ultimately re-traumatise them in a few months’ time.
“The New Zealand [earthquake] recovery graph demonstrates this well,” she says, acknowledging that the disaster-recovery person sometimes has to be the one to say the hard thing, the thing that can even make them seem heartless.
“The graph shows a very brief honeymoon period of response, maybe four to six weeks, and then this massive fall off. People fight me on it every time. They say, ‘No. This community is different. We’re different. It won’t happen.’ And then it happens.”
This is not to say that you don’t care, or you don’t respond, or that you do nothing – but rather, that you ask what people want, you respond in the best way and not just in the first way that comes to mind.
And it is Lucy Easthope’s job to help us learn the best ways to help in disaster, because she has seen so many on our behalf.
Obviously, there is a difficulty in turning off from a job like this. Disaster, as she writes about so well, is everywhere. She says she works hard at not letting it leak into her life. She is a very warm person, even over Zoom, and though she has three television screens on the go all day, she tries to keep work separate to family life. She laughs a lot – mostly at herself – and relishes the often black humour of her colleagues.
During lockdown, she started a movie club with some teammates, watching in their own homes and enjoying a group running commentary on social media.
Right now, they are working through the films of Tom Hanks, who has survived a fair bit of on-screen castastrophe himself. They recently watched Sully, about the pilot who landed on the Hudson River, and shared opinions on what they might have done differently.
Easthope is in a book club with work pals in Dublin, where she visits regularly (though not since Covid) to speak at the Emergency Management Institute of Ireland.
“I do regular support with the EMII,” she says. “You have the best emergency management programmes there, so that brings me over. In my work, I do a lot around resting remains – and, very sadly, Ireland is considered world leading in terms of learning.
"We’ve learned a lot from Ireland in terms of forensic anthropology and human rights. Obviously, with The Disappeared, you’ve got families there who wait constantly on the testing of remains.”
There has been talk of a film of When the Dust Settles and Easthope is unfazed but amused by the notion. Her startle response to the idea is definitely under control.
In terms of casting, her uncle Mikey, a coroner who features in the book, would like to be played by George Clooney, and Tom, Easthope’s husband, thinks The Rock could do him justice.
Easthope isn’t sure who should play her, but she’d be happy with “any of the ‘Derry Girls.’” Other than that, she’s not fussy, so long as it doesn’t end up as “Bridget Jones does disaster.” Her job is to anticipate the worst, but I doubt that particular one will come to pass.
‘When the Dust Settles’ by Lucy Easthope is published by Hodder, and is out now, €14.99