Book review: When the Dust Settles by Lucy Easthope

Easthope’s memoir of her experiences as a disaster manager is ‘gripping and filled with compassion’

Lucy Easthope
Lucy Easthope
(Image credit: Sam Hardwick/Alamy Stock Photo)

“Lucy Easthope doesn’t look like your average superhero,” said Laura Hackett in The Sunday Times. “She describes herself as short, round, arthritic and clumsy.” And yet, like a superhero, she turns up whenever calamity strikes, and endeavours to make things better. For more than two decades, Easthope has been a disaster manager – a job that requires her to coordinate recovery efforts in the wake of major catastrophes. Her tasks in such situations range from identifying bodies and recovering victims’ personal belongings to “relocating people who have lost their homes to floods, and planning ahead for possible future disasters”. And she has been involved in the aftermath of some of the worst disasters of recent times – the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017. When the Dust Settles, her memoir of these experiences, is a “gripping account, filled with compassion”.

Easthope, who grew up in Liverpool, says it was witnessing the impact of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 that set her on her career path, said Jasper Rees in The Daily Telegraph. She studied for a master’s in disaster management, and was then hired by a company called Kenyon International Emergency Services, where she was tasked with preparing a mortuary for British service personnel killed in Iraq. At the core of her job is a “process known as Disaster Victim Identification, which involves painstaking analysis by pathologists, anthropologists and odontologists to append a name to flesh, bone and teeth”. Inevitably, there are sections that are gruesome to read, but her account is never less than “riveting”. This is a book that will do for disaster management “what Rachel Clarke’s Dear Life has done for palliative medicine and Adam Kay’s This Is Going to Hurt for obstetrics”.

As well as being grimly fascinating to read about, Easthope’s job is of crucial importance, said Matthew Reisz in The Observer. As she points out, if disasters are handled insensitively, it can greatly “amplify the suffering of families”. Get things right, on the other hand, and an important step will have been taken towards helping people and communities recover. So it is “somewhat dispiriting” to learn that she thinks “a slow rot” has set in in British disaster planning, with the focus shifting lately from doing what is best for the victims to prioritising the “optics” of a catastrophe. By drawing back the curtain on her “largely hidden” profession, Easthope’s “enthralling” book points the way towards a more humane approach.

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Hodder & Stoughton 304pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

When the Dust Settles by Lucy Easthope

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