State of Emergency

Updated: March 19, 2021
In this Article

    A State of Emergency is a circumstance in which government officials determine that there is a threat to the safety of the citizens of the United States, or region thereof. During such a time, officials may implement procedures to protect or provide care for the affected population until the threat has diminished. Military personnel and aid may be called into action when a government official declares a State of Emergency, often urgently to set forth emergency plans and powers to protect the best interest of the citizens.

    Reasons for States of Emergency

    • Natural disaster (hurricanes, earthquakes, floods)
    • Civil unrest (riots)
    • Domestic or terrorist attacks
    • Medical pandemic or epidemic
    • Biosecurity Risk

    Governments at local, state, and federal levels can authorize a State of Emergency. In doing so, the government is granted a temporary suspension of constitutional laws and funding for community aid, including restricting normal freedoms by instituting martial law, state of siege, etc.

    The scale of which emergencies are called depends on the circumstances and the plans needed in place to prevent further risk. Declarations at a federal level can employ agencies like the U.S. military, and trickle down to the day-to-day life of civilians.

    When is a State of Emergency Called?

    A government official declares a State of Emergency when it is deemed an immediate crisis. Plans are set into place and funds are released for aid and resources.

    Local, State, and Federal Jurisdictions

    State of Emergencies exists in local, state, and federal jurisdictions. Meaning, there are emergency powers that affect different components of the community.

    Local Emergency

    Local Emergencies are centralized around a city or region and declared by the mayor. Natural disasters like flooding, earthquakes, or hurricanes impact the local citizens and government first.

    Relief efforts begin from local agencies and resources.

    State of Emergency

    Several Local Emergencies can occur at once and may rely on the state government for aid to sustain recovery. The governor of the state can declare a state of emergency to enable him/her to make decisions. This is also a preliminary step to receiving federal aid.

    The National Guard, law enforcement, and other state agencies can be called for immediate assistance. A State of Emergency does not hold power over local businesses. This is typically reinforced under local jurisdiction unless declared federal law.

    Federal or National State of Emergency

    At a federal level, there are approximately 500 federal laws that can be exercised including but not limited to:

    • Advising citizens to help manage the crisis
    • Rationing food and resources
    • Allocating equipment and property for relief efforts
    • Providing emergency shelters or ordering evacuations
    • Imposing martial law


    The History of State of Emergency

    The government has declared states of emergency during times of war and conflict, both on American soil and abroad, dating back to the Great Depression and World War One. In response to Korean War hostilities and Chinese intervention, President Harry Truman declared a State of Emergency in December of 1950 claiming the threat of Communist Imperialism. The declaration remained in effect continuously through 1972. A Senate special committee convened to investigate when the use of emergency powers came into question regarding America’s involvement in conflicts between Vietnam and Cambodia.

    The 1973 committee report discovered that the United States was functioning under four separate proclamations of National Emergency still in effect from 1933, 1950, 1970, and 1971, allowing the President to use powers without normal checks and balances. In 1974, new legislation S.Res 242 rechartered the original investigating panel as the Special Committee on National Emergencies and Delegated Emergency Powers. The investigations and findings of the Special Committee led to the development of legislation requiring reform for the processes of emergency declarations and Presidential use of emergency powers. Several bills and proposals passed through Congress and Senate, eventually leading to the creation of the National Emergencies Act of 1976.

    1976 National Emergencies Act

    In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed the National Emergencies Act giving formal executive power to the President during times of crisis. The Act ended all National Emergencies prior to its signing, formalized presidential emergency powers, and defined the procedures required to invoke such powers during a time of emergency. Since its passing, there have been 60 national emergencies with 30 still ongoing. Today, Presidents declare emergencies pursuant to procedures outlined in the Act, and emergency powers they intend to use are specified in the declaration.

    The first emergency authorized under the National Emergencies Act was declared in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter when ten American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran by Iranian students, beginning the Iran Hostage Crisis. In all, 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. The declaration is still in affect, being extended most recently by President Trump.

    State of Emergency and the Corona Virus

    The most recent State of Emergency in the United States was declared in response to the corona virus outbreak. President Trump declared a National Emergency in March 2020, and by March 17th, 48 states had declared a State of Emergency. By April 1st, the majority of States were under stay-at-home and shelter in place orders as an attempt to limit the spread of the virus, and the U.S. military had issued a Stop Movement order.

    National State of Emergency Declarations By President

    • Joe Biden – 1
    • Donald Trump – 7
    • Barack Obama – 12
    • George W. Bush – 13
    • Bill Clinton – 17
    • George H.W. Bush – 4
    • Ronald Reagan – 6


    List of  States of Emergency in the U.S.

    May 27, 1941 – April 28, 1952: President Roosevelt declared an unlimited National Emergency on May 27th, 1941 under threat from Nazi Germany. Later that year on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and the U.S. enters World War II.

    Dec. 16, 1950 – Sept. 14, 1978: Truman declares Proclamation 2914 initiating US military, naval, air, and civilian defenses to fight communism as part of the Korean War.

    July 1967: Detroit declares a state of emergency when a Sunday morning blind pig raid triggers the 12th Street riots, a bloody conflict between Detroit police and black residents leading to the death of 43 people, nearly 1200 injured, and the destruction of 2,000 buildings.

    March 23, 1970 – Sept. 14, 1978: Nixon declares a National Emergency with Proclamation 3972 in response to the 1970 US Postal Service Strike.

    Nov. 14, 1979 – Current: Carter issues Executive Order 12170 to freeze Iranian Assets in response to the Iran Hostage Crisis.

    October 1962: The Unites States declares a state of emergency in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. America discovered soviet ballistic missiles deployed in Cuba leading to a 13-day stand-off between the US and Soviet Union, narrowly avoiding nuclear conflict.

    April – May 1992: California declares a state of emergency during the Los Angeles Riots, when police were acquitted of severely beating Rodney King. During the six-day riot, angry mobs lashed out, severely beating people of other races and destroying property all over the city. 63 people were killed, 2,383 injured, and property damage was estimated at over $1 Billion.

    Winter 1995: Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan declares state of emergency after a snowstorm buries the city under six feet of snow.

    Nov. 30, 1999: Seattle, Washington declares a state of emergency during protests and police response in relation to the WTO Ministerial Conference of 1999.

    August 2003: The North American Blackout prompts Michigan, Ohio, and New York to declare a state of emergency.

    Sept. 14, 2011 – Current: An ongoing state of emergency was declared in 2011 after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. They remain in effect to this day.

    August 2005 – Hurricane Katrina develops into a Category 5 storm, making multiple landfalls in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Alabama. The storm devastated entire communities and brought considerable economic loss. President George W. Bush declared a state of emergency in the wake of its destruction.

    June 12, 2016: Governor of Florida declares state of emergency for the Orlando area after a nightclub shooting where more than 50 people are killed.

    Sept. 21, 2016: North Carolina declares state of emergency during riots in Charlotte after police shoot a black male.

    Aug. 12, 2017: State of Virgina declares a state of emergency amid escalating tensions in Charlottesville protests.

    May 10, 2018 – Hawaii declares a state of emergency during the eruption of the volcano Kilauea, which also triggered multiple earthquakes.

    June – August 2018 – California declares a state of emergency after multiple wildfires ravage the state.

    May 2018 – Category 4 Hurricane Florence hit the east coast causing multiple states to declare a state of emergency. After the storm, Florida’s coast was impacted by the red tide so much so that Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in August.

    Feb. 15, 2019: President Trump declared a National Emergency at the southern border in proclamation 9844 to seek funds to construct a wall to protect the United States from the infiltration of criminals, narcotics, and gang members.

    May 15, 2019: Bans American companies from using any telecommunications equipment that the secretary of Commerce declares to be a national security risk.

    March 13, 2020: Declaring a National Emergency Concerning the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak.

    June 11, 2020: Freezes property of persons directly engaged in, or materially supporting, any effort by the ICC to investigate, arrest, detain or prosecute US or US-allied personnel in connection with the War in Afghanistan; bars entry into the US by such directly engaged persons and their immediate families

    Feb. 11, 2021: Freezes property of and denies entry to persons involved in the 2021 Myanmar coup d’état and their immediate families, and likewise for all businesses operating in Myanmar’s defense sector or controlled by the Myanmar military

    About The AuthorCristina Van Orden is a literary writer and active military spouse. She holds an MFA from Antioch University and taught K-12 English before working in editorial. Cristina currently resides on base with her husband and children.

    Written by Team