This lengthy New York Times piece by Jon Mooallem is subtitled, "The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 surprised everyone by showing that natural disasters can bring out more kindness than selfishness." The piece is worth reading just for the stunning photos of the devastation that occurred in Anchorage on the evening of March 27, 1964 when the state was struck by "the most powerful earthquake in American history, and the second most powerful ever measured in the world."
Mooallem's piece packs a powerful punch, too. In the aftermath of the earthquake, Alaskans were sharing and cooperative, and it turns out that unselfish behavior during a disaster is the rule rather than the exception:
In the 56 years since the Great Alaska Earthquake, an entire field of sociology, disaster studies, blossomed around the Disaster Research Center, with sociologists parachuting into scores of other communities after natural disasters around the world, and it's stunning to look back and recognize how much of the resilience, levelheadedness, kindness and cooperation those sociologists saw in Anchorage turned out to be characteristic of disasters everywhere.
The one thing that interferes with the tendency towards altruism in a disaster is something scholars call "elite panic."
Many of our ugliest assumptions about human behavior have been refuted by their observations of how actual humans behave — though we seem tragically slow to shed those old myths. (In some cases, disaster studies teaches us, those in power are so overcome with worry about mass panic and looting that they overreact and clamp down on a public that isn't actually panicked at all. Disaster scholars refer to this phenomenon as "elite panic.")