When the news and pictures streamed in from Oklahoma, it was terrible and shocking. The tornado hit Moore, leveling homes and obliterating a school, where frightened children turned to teachers who comforted them, kept their cool and tried to protect their charges, with their own bodies if it came to that.

As state and local officials were still figuring out the extent of the damage, they got word from President Obama that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would assist efforts to recover and rebuild.

A view of the destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary School after a tornado in Moore, Okla. (Oklahoma National Guard/European Pressphoto Agency)

The first responders — as they did at the Boston Marathon bombing, the Texas fertilizer plant explosions, Hurricane Sandy and every other disaster — earned high praise and some credit that the too-high casualty count was not higher.

Teachers, big government, city and county workers — it seems it sometimes takes a tragedy to love them.

Most days, talk about teachers and government workers sounds more like a curse – overpaid, underworked, in it for a paycheck. People who have never done the jobs have plenty to say about them. When states look to cut costs or institute another round of layoffs, those are the vulnerable positions. After all, they are not the prized “job creators” of modern rhetoric. Why, I wonder, would anyone want a job that is often thought of as a last resort for those who couldn’t cut it elsewhere?

But these are the people who look after a community’s children. “A teacher who had been watching the storm’s progress outside Plaza Towers Elementary School on Monday came tearing down the hall, yelling to get as many children as possible into the girls’ bathroom,” read The Washington Post‘s report, the narrative relayed by an 11-year-old who was there. “Perhaps 70 or 80 children jammed into the bathroom within moments, he said. … Some teachers were standing; when the tornado hit, they threw themselves on top of the children.”

It was the same protective instinct at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., with teachers trying to shield children from a storm of bullets.

This week, Obama met with his disaster team, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and spoke with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and Rep. Tom Cole, whose home is in the heavily damaged suburb of Oklahoma City. I’m sure that the topic of cuts to federal spending to rein in the deficit was not part of the conversation.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey (R) was criticized for his expressive gratitude to the president in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. But as the Republican political establishment in Oklahoma no doubt realizes, right now, all their citizens want is help.

It doesn’t mean that “big government,” the catch-all conservative bogeyman, can’t be criticized for bloat or inefficiency. But when a storm or tornado hits and the unimaginable happens, we want government, we want it now and we want it to work.

Thankfully, disasters — of the human and natural variety — don’t happen too often, so we have the luxury to complain about people doing the jobs we don’t want or don’t have to do.

It would be nice at those times to remember how it is with certain things and people — we don’t appreciate them until we need them.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3