For about the first five days after the Japanese earthquake / tsunami, every single official reassurance about the nuclear power plant situation turned out, almost immediately, to be wrong. By the time a week ago when Obama went on TV to warn us there was nothing to worry about, my immediate reaction was: "Well, that's it. We're doomed." I expected the next day's news to bring word that, having already flattened Tokyo, Godzilla had been sighted wading ashore on Venice Beach.
Since then, things have stabilized somewhat, but today's word of too much radiation for infants in the Tokyo water supply is a reminder of some lessons we should learn about contingency plans. Namely, that when the Big One hits, you can't count on the survivors to execute superbly.
For example, I know a fellow who was so flummoxed by the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and aftershocks that he jumped in his car and sped off to Central California for four nights in a motel. Seems understandable, right? Except that the wife and kids he left behind in his haste to get the hell out of LA were kind of sore about it.
Or say you are a worker at the nuclear plant and you survive the tsunami washing over you. You are tough stuff and aren't all that shook up by it psychologically and are ready to respond rationally. But, rationally speaking, what's going to be your number one priority? Executing the contingency plan that begins, "Because the tsunami wall is tall enough to stop all tsunamis ... " or finding out what happened to your wife and kids? And if they are okay, where are they going to sleep, what food are they going to eat, where are they going to get gasoline and heating fuel? Is your house gone? Where's your mom? Where's your mom's sister? Your best friend is shook up because he can't find his father. Where's your dog? Where's the next shift?
Say you are a power company executive back in Tokyo. You've spent years reassuring everybody that the worst can't happen. How fast are you going to admit that the worst has happened, that it's time to flood the reactors with sea water, wiping out billions in productive capacity, to ask for help from the military and from the U.S. Navy? Say you vetoed a plan at the annual budget meeting a couple of years ago to raise the emergency generators up on steel platforms so that they wouldn't get wiped out by a tsunami because you wanted to spend the money instead on a morale building golf trip to Hawaii for the executive ranks? Are feelings of guilt going to impede your effectiveness, make you hope for the best?
The basic lesson is that you can't assume a high level of performance out of people during an unprecedented crisis.