What’s a State of Emergency?

From earthquakes on the West Coast to blizzards in the East, citizens have been alerted that they are in a state of emergency. Who decides when things have reached a state of emergency, and what does it mean?

Usually the governor of a state makes that declaration, and it allows the chief executive to, for example, activate the National Guard, close government buildings, and suspend particular laws and regulations. If a state decides it needs federal assistance to recover from a calamity, the governor then calls in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA, along with local officials, conducts an assessment of damage and needs, and then the governor makes a request through FEMA to the president, who has final approval. FEMA can declare two levels of crisis. One is an Emergency Declaration, which provides short-term assistance to save lives and protect property. For example, the federal government might reimburse a state for funds used to clear snow during a blizzard. More long-term is the Major Disaster Declaration. That means the federal government provides 75 percent of the cost for repairing public facilities such as roads, buildings, and utilities after an earthquake or flood, for example. It also clears the way for individuals to apply for relief such as temporary housing and low-interest loans.

FEMA, which was created in 1979, has handled an average of 34 major disasters a year in the past two decades. The agency comes in with help for the usual biblical sorts of messes: floods, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides. Last year it also provided emergency aid to New York and New Jersey in their efforts to contain the mosquito-borne West Nile virus. But not all FEMA disasters are natural. The agency provided assistance to California for recovery from fires set during the 1992 Los Angeles riots and to Oklahoma for recovery from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

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Explainer thanks Quentin Banks of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and reader Raymond Chen for suggesting the question. For more on FEMA, see thissite.