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What Does 'State of Emergency' Really Mean?

Ethan Trex
Firefighters battle a state of emergency.
Firefighters battle a state of emergency. / Phonix_a/iStock via Getty Images
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Local and state officials across the U.S. are declaring states of emergency in their efforts to manage the coronavirus pandemic. Some entire countries, including Italy and Japan, have also declared a state of emergency. But what does this phrase really entail?

Local and State Response

The answer varies a bit from state to state. Essentially, declaring a state of emergency gives the governor and his or her emergency management team a bit of extra latitude to deal with a situation quickly and with maximum coordination. Most of these powers are straightforward: The governor can close state offices, deploy the National Guard and other emergency responders, and make evacuation recommendations.

Other powers are specific to a certain situation. For example, in a blizzard, a governor can impose travel restrictions to clear roads for snowplows and other emergency vehicles.

Calling in the Feds

If a disaster is so severe that state and local governments don’t have the cash or the logistical ability to adequately respond, the governor can ask for a declaration of a federal emergency. In this case, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) does a preliminary damage assessment to help determine whether the governor should petition the president for a federal emergency declaration.

When the declaration from the president comes through, state and local governments can get funding and logistical help from the feds. What makes a crisis a federal emergency? The list is pretty broad, but FEMA shares some criteria here.

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