A review of When the Dust Settles by Lucy Easthope, published in 2022 by Hodder and Stoughton.
Lucy Easthope is the UK’s leading authority on recovering from disaster and has been an advisor on nearly every major disaster of the past two decades. She is a Professor in Practice of Risk and Hazard at the University of Durham and Fellow in Mass Fatalities and Pandemics at the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath. She advises government and disaster planners. She is part of a profession that provides a Cinderella service dedicated to cleaning up after the worst has happened. As she says, it is a hidden profession and the book is her attempt to bring this painstaking work into the light. There are stories here of love, loss and hope from someone committed to every detail of loss and all the remains of disaster. The stories are infused with a competence and compassion to inspire trust in the powers of endurance and recovery.
When the Dust Settles helps us to appreciate the inevitability of disaster and the care of responders to every single victim. It is noticeable how Lucy’s professional disaster awareness and experience is entwined with a far more personal account of crises and disasters in her own life (and her living through them). She is disarmingly honest about the difficulties, disappointments and disasters that she has faced and this gives an air of authenticity and integrity to her writing. She understands the risks of disasters and the ripple effects of disasters. Disasters don’t occur in isolation. “They domino into other disasters, and as they unfurl they become entangled with the other challenges in our lives that would have occurred regardless”. (p264)
“Disasters are about total loss. Tangible losses: of a person, a house, a place. And intangible losses: of a feeling of safety, trust in authority.” She makes use of the Welsh word hiraeth (for which there is no English equivalent) to describe the terrible mourning for the “life before”. “Hiraeth is a longing for a place to which there is no return, an echo of something that can never be found, a heartsickness for something that no longer exists and a time that can never be gone back to.”
Lucy writes: “Life after disaster is perpetual, chronic, with a pain that ebbs and flows like tides…. In the floodwaters of Doncaster and the rubble of Christchurch, I discovered a new, long, chronic loss brought about by the loss of everything. The ‘furniture of self’ laid to waste. The never ending ache of hiraeth. But these places also taught me something else. The value of a horizon to swim towards. The importance of trying to build something afterwards. But to stay living, breathing, there had to be a purpose, a future, a bluer sky.” (p124)
A lot of Lucy’s work is providing training and helping people to learn lessons from disasters. I was at the point of asking myself how clergy are prepared to minister and preach through disaster when I read about the clergy training Lucy provided at a special training day on June 13th 2017. That training was around a scenario which Lucy describes as “the sum of all my fears”, involving homes, the destruction of “furniture of self”, a tower block, fire, loss of life and concerns about the actions of local authorities and building enforcement agencies. The following day, June 14th, 129 homes in Grenfell Tower in London were destroyed by fire. At least 72 people were killed. (A few days later I was at a local high school overlooked by the flats for an exhibition of A-level student work organised by my son who was Head of Art there.)
The media often turn to local clergy for a comment when disaster strikes a community. I wonder how prepared I ever was to respond to such a disaster or to endure the long term consequences. I am now more conscious than ever that our scriptures were borne out of disasters by those who suffered them. Those scriptures contain texts that have forged resilience in their readers. Jesus’ teaching and the sorrowful discipleship path he leads his followers on were designed to help us endure disaster. For example, Jesus tells his disciples what to expect in Mark 13. There will be earthquakes, wars, injustice, betrayal, murder and hatred. These things may feel like the end and to some may signal the end, but they never are. They have been with us from the beginning, and from the beginning the people of God have repeatedly helped people live and work through the dreadful consequences.
It is striking just how many disasters Lucy refers to. So many are carefully dated, even to the minute and the moment. This reinforces the sense that life changes in an instant for those who are victims of disaster.
Lucy rather overstates the case that we are all disaster survivors now following the Covid-19 pandemic. A lot of people were relatively untouched by the pandemic, some of them making the most of the opportunity to profit from it, or using it as an opportunity to relocate or learn a new language. What is striking in the last chapter with its focus on the pandemic is the foresight of those who knew we were overdue a pandemic and how, as one, she actively mobilised proactive responses in her local community.
Her final sentence: “All the planners can do now is be the light-bearers, illuminating the traps and helping as many as they can to navigate the next steps.” (p271). When the dust settles we have a lot to be thankful for – not least those, like the funeral directors who are prepared to deal with bodies contaminated by chemicals, and others Lucy highlights as such valuable colleagues. I’m letting the dust settle after reading this book. I learned a lot, I’ve thought again and I hope I am now less inclined to bury my head in the sand of my own preoccupations as disaster strikes again (and again).