This isn't some kind of small, cheaply political distinction to draw. This gets to the heart of the different between the parties, between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. When disaster strikes, do you want the government to have enough fire fighters to send out to pull you from the flood or to put out the fire? Or do you want to rely on a business to come and save you in Romney's ideal world in which disaster relief has been "sent back to the private sector"? Can you guarantee that if something like Sandy hits and millions of people need help, you'll have bought the platinum package that puts you at the top of your private sector safety contractor's rescue list? Most of us can't.
We need government—need not just fire fighters and police and nurses but the safety inspectors who will tell us which buildings and tunnels are safe to go into, the construction workers and engineers who will pump out and repair those flooded tunnels and train tracks and roads. We need more than bottled water and canned food donated by well-meaning individuals, as Romney's campaign is seeking. We need skilled workers and large-scale planning. It's the availability of this kind of help that has New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a keynote speaker at Romney's Republican National Convention, praising President Obama.
Republicans launch their attacks on public workers and the role of government by pointing to the peaceful moments, when the fire fighters sit around waiting to be called. But that's not how we should measure disaster preparedness, as Hurricane Sandy has so powerfully reminded us. And acts of charity, however well intended, are not how we recover from disaster.