Disasters always happen in some faraway place. Then we forget about them. Not right away, but gradually our attention fades and we move onto something else, somewhere else. Lucy Easthope’s job is not to forget or look away, but to search for patterns and lessons learned. She offers a personal account of what it feels like to miscarry a much wanted child, time after time (she calls them ‘Titans’) but still live in hope for a better outcome. None of us can be experts in living, but she did have children. Here she tells us what she does for a living; hope is in her name and nature.
‘I am one of the country’s top experts on disaster recovery. I am called to size up the scale of what is to be faced and what can be done about it. Police and local responders might only see one incident like this once in their career but I have seen them over and over again: nuclear incidents, chemical attacks, pandemics, food shortages, fuel shortages, trains and plane crashes, volcanoes and tsunamis. Companies, governments, countries, all have to be prepared for catastrophe.’
Many of us watched on telly Grenfell tower block burning. There was a palpable sense of anger, but anybody that had been paying attention knew what would happen—whitewash.
Lucy Easthope, ‘The White Dove’ begins the chapter in a jokey way with thirty-five vicars turning up for enlightenment. You can’t leave God to sort out whose who and what’s what in disasters like Grenfell, where Disaster Victim Identification can involve the dust of one victim mixed with the dust of another and various other cremated items. Easthope recounts the lessons of ‘torturing the dust’ of Ground Zero after 9/11 (carcinogenic in the air causing even more deaths for those working on the site). Science, particularly DNA testing and retesting and retesting can be itself a form of torture for the victim’s families, but she suggests there should be an end point, when they should be allowed to grieve and the community allowed to recover.
Easthope had a meeting scheduled for 13th June 2017. She planned to bring together theologians and scientists and the police and coroners for a full day’s event. The scenario involved twenty years’ experience gathered in the field and ‘the sum of all my fears’.
A tower block. The destruction of ‘the furniture of self’. Personal effects such as toothbrushes and passports would be gone. Some effects would be damaged. But these would have to be picked over by specially hired contractors over several months and may well be contaminated and disposed of.
The residents of the tower block would come from diverse backgrounds. There would be concerns from them over the shortcomings of local authorities, building enforcement agencies and gas-safety sign off.
The training exercise would involve loss of life, fire and a great deal of ‘forensic uncertainty’.
‘There would be cremains and dust. There would be the most complex of DNA challenges: hard-to-access samples and no clear biological kinship and a lengthy drawn out identification process. With human slavery and trafficking on the rise, we would also not know who everyone was in the tower. Lost and hidden people might be in there too.’
The training day, Easthope admits started badly and ended badly, with the bit in between going to form.
‘We will never see another Hillsborough,’ claimed one attendee.
Midnight, 14th June 2017. Grenfell Tower turned into a ‘burnt matchbox in the sky’.
‘In a grim echo of the scenario we had[not] explored in Exercise Unified Response, one woman heavily pregnant, lost her baby at thirty weeks.’
He was added to the death toll, bring it to 72 on February 2018 [cremains of those ‘slaves’ in the tower was not taken into account].
Being prescient is her job. Her work as an expert has been downplayed and government funding falling. Politicians more concerned about how it will look on their watch. Image is all. The Grenfell cover-up is only a surprise if you expected some other outcome.
When the Dust Settles deals with Covid, which Easthope also accurately predicted before it happened. It does not deal with the big one, which is easy to predict and its effects well documented. Global Warming and the coming apocalypse which is more of a certainty than any tower-block fire or Covid killing tens of million so far, which we can multiply by at least ten to the power of three or four in the early stages.