Governors up and down the East Coast are declaring states of emergency in advance of Hurricane Irene’s landfall. The words pop up in the news every few months, but what does the dire-sounding phrase “state of emergency” really mean?

The answer varies a bit from state to state, but basically, declaring a state of emergency gives the governor and his emergency management team a bit of extra latitude to deal with a situation quickly and with maximum coordination. Most of these powers are fairly 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, 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 federal government. What makes a crisis a federal emergency? The list is pretty broad, but FEMA shares some of the criteria on its website.