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Commentary: Joplin tornado highlights role government plays

When President Barack Obama arrives in Joplin today, he will find a quintessential small American city splintered and stunned. People who have witnessed both say the destruction of neighborhoods in the path of last Sunday’s tornado is akin to the aftermath of a nuclear weapon.

But the president will also find a city picking itself up, caring for its citizens, comforting its bereaved and planning for a future that looks much different than it did one week ago.

A massive outpouring of public and private support has sustained Joplin. And as the president arrives in town, it is worth considering the role of government at multiple levels in responding to the crisis.

A pernicious story line, recited on talk radio, in state legislatures and in some quarters of Washington, says that government can’t do anything right. Government is the problem, Ronald Reagan famously said. And a vast political and business alliance works furiously to make his declaration a self-fulfilling prophecy by underfunding vital programs and disparaging public employees.

But when disaster strikes, we expect government to work. We need it to work. Last week, it did.

Police, firefighters and medics made their way through the dark and the rain Sunday night to rescue the trapped and aid the wounded. Kansas City had 50 firefighters en route within hours. Its police department sent communications specialists, tactical teams, a search-and-rescue dog and a traffic enforcement squad.

Other cities sent first-responder teams. They worked in the rain that first day, searching the rubble for survivors and for bodies. In a cruel sign that nature hadn’t quite finished its mayhem, two police officers from Riverside were felled by a lightning strike. Officer Jeff Taylor was gravely injured.

Like the city he was helping, he will have a long road to recovery.

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