Let’s say Godzilla is trampling across Portland, and the usual round of the machine gun fire and buzzing helicopters hasn’t fazed it. Then more colossal radioactive lizards emerge around the country. Everybody panics, even the Portland hipsters who had been ironically ignoring the news, because, like, they had their community garden plots to tend.
The president declares a state of national emergency. What happens next? How does that affect the average citizen, and how should people respond in such an emergency?
These questions interested me because in apocalyptic fiction, the government often ends up being either incapable or nefarious. When the latter, declarations of martial law turn out to benefit politicians, and maybe a few scientists or businessmen, more than the common folk; presidents use the chaos as an excuse to amass usually restricted powers, and an evil overlord is born.
The government becomes an enemy as much as Godzilla, or a war or pandemic or whatever. And then you have “1984” or “The Hunger Games,” and initial relief about a chaotic situation being resolved turns into despair at the new oppression and everyone is sad and sorry until, you know, Batman shows up to save us all.
Turns out, federal states of emergency are not as dramatic as books and movies make them seem.
Because of the checks and balances in place, Congress would have to be in on the whole creating-a-dictator thing; the president doesn’t single-handedly control a state of national emergency. (Also, the armed forces would have to play along with the government’s rampant corruption, imprisoning and impaling citizens and all that.)
Of course, dictators have arisen before and will again, maybe even in America. But the good news is we’re not just an executive order away from dystopia. A lot of people would have to participate in or allow the corruption.
Generally, states of national emergency temporarily suspend certain functions of civil courts; habeas corpus may be suspended, and military offenses may not go before a grand jury. Troops, besides those from the state-by-state National Guard, may be brought in to help control a situation. And, of course, FEMA may be put in charge of dealing with disaster areas.
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So in the case of a state of emergency, you might have to follow the orders of federally-employed authorities, rather than just your city’s law enforcement and response teams or state officials. And curfews might be imposed, roads closed, stuff like that.
But, unless you’re causing trouble, you probably wouldn’t be directly affected anymore than you would by local emergency response measures.
In case of an emergency, federally recognized or not, there are things you can do to keep yourself as safe as possible:
Stay informed. Keep your radio or TV on, watch for news updates, contact someone at a disaster relief center. And communicate regularly with family as the situation progresses.
Plan ahead. Having an emergency plan doesn’t make you a crazy; you won’t end up on “Doomsday Preppers” just because you put a first aid kit in your car. Talk with roommates, family or neighbors about how you’ll deal with an emergency or evacuation. Questions to answer include: Where will we meet if we are separated when a disaster occurs? What are likely evacuation routes? How will people with disabilities, children and infants or pets affect our plans?
Have some supplies. You don’t have to be a full-time prepper with a year’s worth of MREs stocked up, but the government does recommend having enough food and water for 72 hours on hand. Having a pre-made survival kit with medicines, maps, flashlights and identification is also a good idea.
Give blood. A lot of blood is needed during disasters, and the Red Cross has been really low on reserves this year. I’ve been shirking this responsibility the past summer, but I’m getting back on the donation train. If you haven’t given blood for a while, consider doing the same. You know what they say, the life you save could be your own.
Join a militia. Just kidding. I mean, unless you really want to...
Next week: Brrrrr....