When the Dust Settles by Lucy Easthope review – how to respond to catastrophe

From Covid to chemical spillages, fires to floods, an expert on emergency planning looks back on a lifetime of dealing with disaster

After Lucy Easthope lost her first baby to a miscarriage, she kept everything, from the pregnancy test and her first scan to the hospital appointment slips, in a brightly coloured shoebox. As a disaster expert whose responsibilities include making the loss of loved ones as bearable as possible for those left behind, she had plenty of experience working on memory boxes, right down to the package design (“too ‘gifty’ and it looked all wrong”). These boxes might contain anything from a charred passport or a wedding band to the wrapper from a packet of mints. Easthope understood the importance of preserving these items for grieving relatives, and now she was doing it for herself. Her shoebox of memories of her baby was, for her, “proof that she had been. That she had existed.”

Easthope is one of the UK’s leading authorities on emergency planning. She is the person who assesses the scale of a disaster and what is needed to ensure smooth operations in the aftermath. Over the course of her career, she has advised on chemical spillages, volcanoes, fires, floods and terrorist attacks. She lent her expertise to operations around the 2004 tsunami, the 7/7 bombings, the Grenfell fire and, most recently, the British response to Covid-19: “We are all disaster survivors now,” she writes. Her work has an even more immediate resonance in the light of the invasion of Ukraine, with images of shattered apartment buildings and lines of refugees suddenly ubiquitous. As well as dealing with immediate practicalities, high up on her agenda are the needs of those left behind: the displaced, the traumatised, the bereaved.

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