Leber: In disaster, seeing the good in people

The photographs from New York City are astounding.

Cars half-submerged in water. Buildings with exposed facades. The city skyline, dark.

From hundreds of miles away, this is how we bear witness.

The images aren't all that tell us about the effects of the disaster that was Hurricane Sandy.

"The New York City subway system is 108 years old," Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Joseph J. Lhota told The New York Times on Tuesday. "It has never faced a disaster as devastating as what we experienced last night."

Subways shut down, schools closed, flights canceled. Death, injury, displacement.

It's horrifying.

And yet, in a strange way, I'm a bit of a disaster junkie.

The times I've been in the thick of blackouts, blizzards and crazy storms, there's a part of me that has relished the preparation, the candles, the comical layers of clothing when the heat goes out. I'm scrappy by nature, and so there's a part of me that delights in being able to exercise that old chestnut that necessity is the mother of invention.

But that's only a small part of it. The thing that really fascinates me about disaster is how it seems to bring out the good in people. Of course, it is said that extreme circumstances only serve to magnify a person's true nature.

In that case, I am happy to have surrounded myself with people who are largely good. In the days up to, and following, the storm, friends and acquaintances took to social media to offer good wishes and prayers from far away. Sometimes, that's all we can do from far away. It might not seem like much, and it often doesn't feel like much when you feel like you ought to be doing more. Still, I've found that sometimes it does help to know someone's keeping a proverbial candle burning.

I saw friends in the areas affected by Sandy try to do what they could to help others. Several of who had power or a warm, dry home extended invitations to those in the dark. A friend asked for the loan of a portable crib for her baby to use at her parents' house, and within minutes, three people had responded. Another offered a carpool to people needing to commute to work.

"Anyone need anything?" one friend posted. "We have power. Water? Batteries? Food?"

You might be reading this and thinking, "Well, sure, anyone would reach out to others in the midst of an emergency. It's just what people do."

You're wrong. It's not 'just what people do,' it's what good people do. Therefore if you think there is nothing unusual or special about people who extend a hand to a neighbor, it's only because you are fortunate to be surrounded with good people.

Certainly, not everyone is willing to be extra kind and generous. Some take advantage of bad situations. Others adopt a survival-of-the-fittest mentality, anyone else be damned. I appreciate that a good number of the people I know are not this way.

On a personal level, I've been truly appreciative of the people who have taken a minute to ask after my family's safety.

They are doing fine. My parents never lost power. My sister did, but she's safely ensconced at our parents' home.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced that the New York City Marathon will still be held on Sunday, spawning debate between those who believe the decision is in poor taste and the ones who think it is a tribute to the spirit of perseverance, as well as having a positive economic impact on local businesses.

As with any disaster, normalcy will begin to take hold again. Or a new normal will set in. Offices will reopen. Trains will run. Lights will come on.

And we'll keep good thoughts, from far away.