In the early 1990s, scientists discovered that the city of Seattle faced far severer seismic hazards than previously known. Their findings showed that a devastating earthquake would occur—perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next year, or maybe not for decades. In any event, the coastal city—the largest in the Pacific Northwest region of North America—was gravely unprepared. The uncertainties surrounding the timing and extent of such a disaster worked against the case for immediate, significant, and unified government action. Beset by more-pressing priorities, elected officials were reluctant to commit significant tax dollars, extensive amounts of time, and substantial political capital to the issue. Municipal emergency managers and community organizers took on much of the responsibility and tried to address important aspects of how to respond to the population’s immediate needs amid the devastation a massive earthquake would cause. They worked especially hard to build networks of organizations and people that would strengthen the city’s preparedness and resilience. Still, organized efforts directed toward two other elements of preparedness—mitigation and recovery—lagged. Seattle’s effort to grapple with those problems spotlighted a bigger question: How should a society prepare for a high-consequence disaster of uncertain timing?
Gordon LaForge drafted this case study based on interviews conducted in Seattle, in July and August 2019. Case published October 2019.