Catalysmic disasters tear apart not just the buildings but the social fabric as well -- right? Wrong, according to a California sociologist, who says she has found that disaster can pull people into a "tribal cohesiveness."

Linda Nilson, a PhD who teaches at UCLA, said her study indicates that fears of looting, confusion and fighting over supplies in the event of a major quake are probably unfounded. She studied 150 accounts of natural disasters for human reaction to cataclysmic events. The study, conducted through a $20,000 National Science Foundation grant, was submitted to the Southern California Earthquake Advisory Board for use in disaster planning.

"Contrary to widely held beliefs, residents in the stricken communities generally keep their heads, care for each other, share scarce resources and actually reach an emotional high as they pull together and tackle the common challenges of survival and rebuilding." Nilson said. The sociologist said her research began because of her own fears about a large quake hitting Southern California. "I got earthquake-paranoid. Coming from the Midwest, I had not been lulled into indifference by experiencing small quakes the way natives have. I was just terrified. There is nothing more frightening than having the ground move out from under you." During her research on tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and tidal waves, Nilson learned that disaster victims generally do not panic.

"Unless widespread death and injury have traumatized them, disaster victims are in an action state of mind," she said. "They want to alleviate the physical and mental pain and any further human and property loss. Not knowing what or how to do it is the worst possible situation for them." After attending to family, friends and relatives, disaster victims often set up rescue, recovery and cleanup teams.

"The collective mood is quite high for several days to several weeks," she said. "Researchers team it the utopian mood." She discontinued the common fear that people will compete violently for scarce food and water supplies. "This myth probably has the least basis in fact of any," Nilson said. "As it happens, disasters quickly unite even those who have dramatically little in common in the kind of large, cooperative group effort rarely seen in the modern world. . . . The situation catapults a community back to tribal cohesiveness. "Looting, it turns out, is virtually unknown within the disaster community. Any looting that does occur is invariably perpetrated by outsiders acting as individuals rather than in groups," Nilson said. A majority of people do suffer mild psychological distress, such as nervousness, depression and insomnia, she said, but few exhibit severe psychological problems.