Lucy Easthope

Disaster planner and recovery expert

This extra-cheerful issue looks at existential risk and how the world might end. Which doom-laden scenarios frighten you?
I aim never to be afraid. One of the best things about being an emergency planner is we chew over our fears together. Crucially, we also get to talk about mitigations and protective factors, which stops some of the fear. I had a big cry at the start of the pandemic and then I readied myself. This was it. The One we’d been planning for. As always, I planted my feet and breathed in from the diaphragm. We face lots of other big risks, of course, which I look at in my book When the Dust Settles. In a chapter called “The Fear” I describe how I became a mum a few weeks before the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown, which looked to be worse than Chernobyl. There is a balance to be struck: we cannot live our daily lives paralysed by fear. All we have is today.

Many feel a bit “end of days” about the UK at the moment. Is this just cyclical, like Christians fearing the Apocalypse?
These are tough times, but there’s nothing new here. We can do this. It’s only in the history books, long after the event, that times are given their gravitas and markers. When you’re inside them all you can do is keep going. It’s partly because I’m a Liverpool fan, but if I feel “the dread” I will stick You Never Walk Alone on full volume.

Your book When the Dust Settles, about the grave, bloody aftermath of disaster, was internationally acclaimed. Why did it find such a wide audience?
The concepts are universal – flood in Adelaide comes with the same chronic misery as flood in Doncaster. One of the loveliest aspects of watching the book land around the world is seeing people embrace the messages. My work brings me in contact with so many nationalities – we might have 45 countries represented in an air crash – but you learn quickly that many needs and feelings are the same.

You say the years following catastrophe are often the hardest. Why?
It’s that long, chronic tail where you can lose sight of a horizon or a purpose. The true scale of the harms of the disaster start to reveal themselves. You lose trust in the policy makers and start to question everything.

How are we seeing that long-term fallout post-covid?
We put a lot of harms on hold for a couple of years but now we have to face them head on. Delayed diagnosis will lead to more deaths and more bereavement.

How much was predictable to an expert in disaster management?
Pretty much everything! There have been only three or four surprises. I expected safe places for children would be prioritised and all that planning was ignored. Though one thing people don’t realise is things like TV streaming services, food supplies and banking held up better than we ever predicted.

If you were leading government, what immediate measures would you take to reassure the population?
I am asked this at local level with every incident I am called to. All our comms are designed to make people trust you, and that’s a fool’s errand. Instead, you have to do things deserving of the public’s trust and let them feel genuinely reassured. We need more pre-disaster public education that explains what is and isn’t helpful from government. For example, placebos are used all the time, such as military uniform, sandbags and distracting the public from their pain by making them drop off their second-hand clothes, which we take to landfill most of the time. I want to get back to an authentic and genuine emergency response. Governments around the world have to work hard to earn back trust.

The best way to tackle anxiety about the world is to be allowed to say it out loud

What advice would you give Keir Starmer if he wins the next election?
Look at every policy through a lens that prioritises children and young people. Invest pre-emptively in emergency planning. Build legal protections for disaster survivors and the bereaved. Read my books.

You became a disaster specialist after growing up in Liverpool and witnessing the Hillsborough disaster. What lessons are we still learning from that catastrophe?
It’s terrifying how fragile disaster learning is – we seem to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. The worst thing for me about the learning from Hillsborough is that it seemed to teach state agencies how to cover up better, lie more effectively and groom communities into a lack of dissent. But I do balance out that cynicism with the amazing, spiritual experience of watching the Liverpool fans, on camera-phone footage, react to the police actions at the UEFA champions league final, Paris 2022. There was an innate, body holds the score reaction when they were being corralled – they were staying so painfully calm and asking the younger ones not to push forward. Watching it is like watching a call to prayer. That’s the sort of community memory put into action that keeps me hopeful.

Why do you often invoke the Welsh word hiraeth?
It’s the only word that works perfectly for the aching loss we see after disaster.

There are a lot of “coincidences” in your book. Do you ever have a sense of uncanny things you can’t explain?
I think everyone in our field does. I also think humans love coincidences. It connects us. I always assume I will know someone at an incident or in a training room and I don’t think I’ve not found a connection yet. As for the eerie feeling – the trickiest thing is working out what to do with that. It’s with me a lot.

How do you reassure your children?
We look at things in more depth. People manage their anxiety by running away, but sometimes you have to turn and fight. I like the Richard Feynman quote about the value of science being that it teaches us how to handle doubt and anxiety. My Mabel worries about the destruction of the environment so we read a lot about what we can do. Both of my girls train in first aid and have their own first aid kits. We talk through “ifs” a fair bit. But we also aim for a 3:1 ratio with the 3 being fun and frolics.

Your husband was an airline pilot. Did that give your household an unusually high sense of risk?
Risk and destruction were actually pretty censored in my house for a number of years; we are more open about our fears now Tom doesn’t fly. Human Factors work is important in aviation, meaning a rarefied environment is prized – pilots are quite cosseted, with understandable caution around illness, debt, fatigue and any worries, really. The pandemic changed a lot for us – we talked more about potential harms in the world and he also got to see what I did more intimately. The best way to tackle anxiety about the world is to be allowed to say it out loud.

Which books, films or dramas deal best with doom and dystopia?
I am a film and TV junkie so I felt validated by a recent article by colleagues on the educational value of critiquing disaster movies. Shaun of The Dead is an important blueprint – every decent disaster plan has a Winchester option (spending the end of the world in the pub).

How do you cheer yourself up?
My social media approach is that one minute I’m talking about something earth shatteringly serious and the next you’ll see me at a Zumba class. That’s how I live. I use music medicinally. Nobody makes me laugh more than my husband and making him laugh is my entire goal in life as he is quite hard to amuse.

Do you think survivalists with stockpiles of lentils have the right idea?
I think it gets a bad rep but preparing for trickier times is a vital part of the human condition; trying to minimise that instinct goes against what our bodies and brains want to do right now. I get questions all the time about how to “ready” and am constantly asked about my generator!

What key items would you store if you had a personal bunker?
Obviously I already have a bunker. Some of my best girlfriends live in the Southern states of the US and prepare for hurricanes and tornadoes every year so I borrow their blueprints for the correct snack ratio. We also have snack-eating nights where we rotate the stockpile. I have a power bank for my phone, generator, radio, water, medication, pants, torches and reading material. I am @lucygobag for a reason. At the very end of the world I would aim to be with Tom and the girls all wrapped up together. I know so many people don’t get that privilege, though. That’s the hardest part of my work: I see constantly the life interrupted.

Best advice you’ve ever been given?
I am mentored constantly – I definitely need it and I have learned to take advice with an open heart, unless it’s delivered cruelly, so this was a tough question because great tips are given to me daily. One bit of practical advice that helps my profound dyspraxia was given to my friend Francis by his mum. He was a newly qualified barrister and kept leaving his wig in its special tin on the tube. She advised him never to carry more than one thing in each hand. There is probably a metaphor in there for resilience, mental health and how we all take on too much.

Tell us something cheerful.
It’s all going to be ok.

Lucy Easthope is a Visiting Professor in Mass Fatalities and Pandemics at the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath. Her latest book, “When the Dust Settles”, is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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April 2024, Q&A

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