May 19, 2019
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We hear it on the news and see it on the internet all the time in response to a natural or man-made disaster: state of emergency was declared by so-and-so at…

We know it as shorthand for a situation turning out really bad, or having the potential to turn out disastrously, but what all does a state of emergency entail?

Does it grant the government extraordinary powers? Does it make certain demands or place certain restrictions on citizens? We’ll investigate and answer those questions in today’s article.

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What is a State of Emergency?

A state of emergency is simply defined as any situation in which a controlling authority or government is empowered to authorize or perform actions that would not normally be permitted. This can mean granting of extraordinary or extrajudicial powers or things like suspension of civil rights and other freedoms for the duration of the declared emergency.

A state of emergency will nominally alert citizens to the fact, as well as what they can expect while it is in effect, as well as what is expected of them behaviorally. A state of emergency is not martial law, though martial lawoften accompanies a federal or regional state of emergency like peanut butter does jelly.

A state of emergency will be declared when a mayor, governor or the President of the United States determines a disaster, natural or man-made is severe enough to warrant additional aid and response beyond what is normally available in order to forestall additional damage or loss of life.

A typical declaration of a state of emergency will simply make more resources available faster, but that is far from all they entail, or allow.

In addition to speeding along resources to help feed, shelter, evacuate or treat survivors and others involved in the crises, a state of emergency will allow the issuing authority to close office in their jurisdiction, issue movement bans and curfews, or even place restrictions on the sale of commodities (at the local level typically).

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Most ominously, a federal issuance of a state of emergency would allow the government to call forth the militia, suspend habeas corpus, freeze assets, bar trade and confiscate private propertyA federal declared state of emergency can actually persist for many years: for instance, one ongoing SoE started immediately after September 11th, 2001.

A great many intricate laws and regulations govern issuance and proceedings under a state of emergency, usually ones to limit government use of them all willy-nilly. In the proceeding sections we will look at what a state of emergency will likely mean to you in a variety of situations.

Specific Powers under a State of Emergency

A state of emergency does not necessarily accompany a world-ending bang or society-crumpling crash; many times an SoE is declared on a local level by a mayor in response to a nasty natural disaster in order to gain access to supplies, manpower and other resources needed to prevent additional suffering and loss of life.

On a national level, the President of the United States can by executive action authorize and declare a state of emergency. While stridently regulated (some 500 laws take effect when this happens), this can streamline the resources the President believes necessary in response to a national threat, major catastrophe or invasion, even up to declaring war without congressional approval if any delay whatsoever would jeopardize the safety of the nation.

Lest you think this is all modern litigious bullcrap designed to enable the mass unpersoning and stripping of rights from citizens, no less a vaunted document than the Constitution of the United States makes provision for a federally declared state of emergency.

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Nonetheless, its provisions are startling, including the aforementioned suspension of habeas corpus; meaning someone could be imprisoned without seeing them brought before a courtroom.

It is powers like that that make some folks, rightly I would say, very wary of any government functionary that can bring them to bear. Even so, considerable lawmaking efforts go into either restricting or easing the burden placed on a government entity when an SoE is declared.

For more info on a few major laws and policies that affect SoE powers and procedure, look into the Insurrection Act of 1807, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977 and the National Emergencies Act of 1976.


Examples of Declared States of Emergency

A state of emergency is not always a transient status; in some circumstances, the president of the U.S. can maintain an ongoing state of emergency regarding a particular threat or situation so long as they declare a specific timetable and then renew it yearly.

For instance, the U.S. declared a national state of emergency beginning on September 14th, 2001 in response to the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City. That SoE remains in effect to this very day, with Presidents Bush, Obama and now Trump choosing to extend its duration indefinitely. This specific declaration suspends laws regarding size limits on the military and allows the DoD to prevent military personnel from leaving the service.

As of 2018, there are over 30 national SoEs still in effect for a variety of things, with some of the largest and longest running ones effects below:

  • Blocking of Iranian Gov’t Property.
  • Preventing Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction
  • Blocking Assets and Halting Transactions with Narcotics Traffickers
  • Blocking of Property and Halting Transactions of Persons Who Commit or Support Terrorism
  • And lastly, a general National Emergency by Reason of Terror Attacks

Remember too the terror attack in Paris, France in November of 2015 that led to a country-wide state of emergency and lockdown. For three months after, public demonstrations were banned and police were permitted to carry out warrantless searches, place anyone under house arrest without specific cause, and shutdown websites encouraging terrorism.

This attack started a similar chain of events in neighboring Belgium. The man that provoked it was a terrorist and coordinator of the cell that perpetrated the attack in Paris, and after crossing into Belgium without incident, police believed he was located in a neighborhood in Brussels.

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After a week of raids, searching, close-calls and shootouts, the Belgian government declared a Level 4 Alert, a state of emergency never before invoked until then. What followed turned Brussels into a veritable ghost town: markets, subways, schools and other public functions were closed or halted. Once bustling streets and squares were empty. An eerie peace had descended over one of the jewels of Europe. In the wake of this SoE, a succession of raids and intense police action was launched across the city in an enormous manhunt for the perpetrator of the attacks.

It was not until March of 2016 that things came to a head in Brussels, in the form of the terror bombings of the airport and subway station. This resulted in further clamp downs from the ongoing state of emergency: all public transport was shutdown, airports, subway and train stations were evacuated and trains arriving from neighboring France were cancelled. The Belgian military was assigned to protect potential targets from follow-on bombings.

Without question, such measures certainly helped authorities do their jobs in the search for the terrorist suspects, but also raises concerns about the trampling of citizens rights here at home in similar circumstances.

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Practical Considerations

All of the above is well and good, and it is true that most folks will only ever be living in a locality or region that has declared a state of emergency in response to a disaster, one where leaders and officials believe that getting additional aid and funding set aside for dealing with such crises is prudent. The rub is, the potential for abuse and overreach is far from fantasy, and many preppers are planning accordingly.

Some see the broad use of emergency powers for “restoring order” as carte blanche for the government to round up dissenters, rabble rousers and politically inconvenient but visible and vocal critics to imprison them under cover of police action and disaster response.

While local and state governments will have a much harder time getting the following to fly, and their own laws vary, in extremis you can definitely expect the following mandates from the feds in a state of emergency:

  • Hard stop on travel into or potentially out of affected areas.
  • Order mandatory relocation or evacuation of residents. By force if necessary.
  • Imposition of curfews will be widespread and strictly enforced.
  • Federally activated forces will be authorized to confiscate goods, equipment and property to assist in management of emergency.
  • Price fixing of goods and commodities to alleviate “price gouging” and “scalping.”
  • Conscript citizens to help with emergency efforts.

In addition to all of the above, except in very rare situations the government and its agents or others acting on its behalf are exempt from any civil liability. It is that specific recipe that has so many gravely concerned more with what the government will do during a major crisis (“we’re here to help”) than any crisis itself.

While more than a few Americans are simply unwilling to believe that the government could really be “the bad guy” in such a scenario, it is important to consider that negative outcomes that might affect you personally may not stem from any actual malice; humans are all too fallible, and a combination of stress, poor judgment and a dangerous situation can lead to gross errors in decision making resulting in tragedy.

Dealing with a Declared State of Emergency

Generally, you’ll be fine in lesser disasters if you simply follow the instructions issued from authorities for the duration of the event. For instance, if you are told to stay out of a storm ravaged area, do so: the movement ban is in place over fears of the public’s safety, no matter how overprotective it might be.

The situation gets a little foggier if an overzealous government issues decrees that are at odds with your survival strategy, or indeed, is the biggest threat to your survival. In such cases, you’ll need to make a choice if the time comes to buck authority or not. Understand that doing so will easily see you arrested, or thumped then arrested, or even shot depending on how badly you are disobeying and how desperate the situation is.

A common theoretical scenario is one of containment: the government is halting all movement in, out or past a certain point. You, naturally want to get by and carry on. So what do you do? Well, a direct confrontation is nearly suicidal and has serious ethical quandaries.

You must, of course, never outsource your safety to anyone else, including the most benevolent government, and likewise cannot check out of thinking critically just because the “authorities” are on the scene. Plenty of people, lulled by complacency due to the presence of uniformed professionals, met their ends because they stopped personally working toward an optimal outcome.

Your best choice is to simply give any authorities or conscripted irregulars as wide a berth as conceivable. Out of sight, out of mind. Do keep in mind, though, that if caught acting surreptitiously or furtively you may fit the profile of the kind of people they are looking out for. In other news, don’t look like a “collar” if at all avoidable.

Regarding extreme overreach and outright abuse, e.g. a government or agency that has gone rogue, mass incarceration or detainment, etc., such a discussion is often the stuff of sheer fantasy, but for the purposes of discussion we’ll entertain it.

In the instance that such a scenario becomes reality, you should emphasize getting as far away from population centers as possible, as the likelihood of crackdowns is very high anywhere you have large concentrations of people. Sure, you might be able to toe the line and avoid running afoul of the enforcers, but you cannot take that chance.

Good time to bug out. Any head-to-head conflict with a well-equipped, well-trained and presumably motivated government force will only go very, very poorly for you on a short-term, individual or small group scale.

Run away, live to see another day. Your life is yours to spend as you see fit, but do choose the hill you want to die on carefully: if you have anyone counting on you, family or otherwise, your death may see them marooned in a world hurtling toward the brink.


A state of emergency is not necessarily a problem, but any one declared over a serious enough incident has the potential to run roughshod over civil liberties and citizens’ rights.

Understand what an SoE declaration will mean at various levels of government in response to various threats to make sure you do not run afoul of any odious restrictions and stay safe for the duration.

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