Are we ready for the day disaster strikes?

Clear and present danger? By the time you read this, it may have
already happened – not war on Iraq, although that is likely this
month – but a terrorist attack in one of our major cities. Recent
alerts, at Heathrow for instance, may be government propaganda or
they may be based on hard facts.

Either way, they pose the question – what role should social
services play in the aftermath of a major disaster?

In The Guardian, last week, Anne Eyre, a trauma
specialist, wrote of the lessons learned from the “decade of
disasters” in the 1980s, among them, the Zeebrugge ferry capsize,
the King’s Cross fire and the Clapham rail disaster. Many of the
bereaved and survivors then felt a “lack of understanding and
effective support”. More recently, after the Twin Towers and the
Bali bomb, long-term support for relatives and those who survived
proved patchy in the UK.

Rose Murray, who chairs the UK Emergency Planning Society’s
human aspects group, says it is unrealistic to expect social
workers to plan and train for an event that may never happen when
they are already over-stretched. Still, after the Clapham rail
crash, social services in Hampshire established a network of
trained “major incident report teams”.

In Trauma and Recovery From Domestic Abuse to Political
, psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman gives an analysis of
the aftermath for many of those who face overwhelming and
unexpected danger. Survivors, she says, find themselves caught
between extremes of amnesia and reliving the trauma, exacerbating a
sense of unpredictability and helplessness. For some this can be
long lasting. A Dutch study of people taken hostage found that, six
to nine years after the incident, one-third still had intrusive

She writes the “threat of annihilation” may pursue the survivor
long after the danger has passed, breaching the attachments of
family and friendships and shattering “the construction of the
self.” This is a process of disintegration that often goes

Herman believes there are three stages to recovery: the
establishment of safety; the right to mourn; a reconnection with
ordinary life.

It seems beyond belief that we, in the UK, might endure a
devastating attack. Yet a trip on the London Underground easily
demonstrates our vulnerability. The pressing question is how
prepared will social services be the morning after to offer the
kind of help that counts?


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