The Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is authorized under state law to declare a Gubernatorial State of Emergency upon the occurrence of a natural or man-made disaster. The law gives the Governor broad authorities to implement emergency measures to ensure the safety and health of the residents of the Commonwealth, take appropriate steps to mobilize state assets, and conduct other emergency business for the protection of the Commonwealth. A Gubernatorial State of Emergency (SOE) is initiated when it becomes necessary for the Governor to assume command (direction and control) for the efficient utilization of the total resources of the Commonwealth, in order to mitigate the effects on people and property of a large-scale threat, emergency or disaster.
There is a misconception that various restrictions or bans automatically are triggered when there is a Gubernatorial State of Emergency in place. This is not so. The declaration of a State of Emergency does not in itself affect the operation of private enterprise. Travel is not automatically banned; businesses and schools are not automatically closed. Many businesses do have contractual agreements with their employees regarding who does/does not have to report to work when a Gubernatorial State of Emergency is issued.
A SOE may be accompanied by a request by the Governor to stay off the roads, to release employees early, or to stagger arrival at work, in order to promote public safety. Such actions, however, are usually in the form of a request, not an order. In extreme circumstances, the Governor, as part of his SOE, may order roads be closed to all but emergency traffic, restricting normal travel, such as occurred during and immediately following the Blizzard of '78 and during the Blizzard of 2013.
The Governor is authorized to exercise certain powers when a SOE is declared, including the power to exercise any and all authority over persons and property necessary for meeting the State of Emergency, including the taking and using of property for the protection of the Commonwealth. Actions such as ordering evacuations, restricting access, implementing curfews, driving bans or restrictions, etc. can be stated in the declaration to protect health and welfare if determined to be warranted.
The SOE may cover a specific municipality (a tornado), multiple communities or counties (a coastal storm), or the entire Commonwealth (a major blizzard). The governor is also authorized to issue Executive Orders to meet the needs of a threat, emergency or disaster. These Orders have the force of law and supersede existing law if there is any conflict between a law and the Executive Order.
The Governor looks to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) Director and her/his staff for recommendations concerning all matters related to carrying out the operational aspects of the Commonwealth's Emergency Management Program. Specifically, in case of any and all disasters, it is as a result of the recommendation from the MEMA Director that the Governor would declare a Gubernatorial SOE. The Governor may, on a recommendation by the Director, authorize assistance from various appropriate State Agencies, and request Federal Agency support allowable under existing Federal statutory authority, to tender assistance. MEMA drafts the appropriate documentation for a Gubernatorial SOE and requests for Presidential Assistance when needed.
A Gubernatorial SOE does not mean that the state will provide financial assistance to cities and towns affected by the disaster. There is no state Disaster Fund available to the Governor or the MEMA Director. State financial assistance may be made available by a vote of the Legislature following the declaration of a Gubernatorial SOE, because of the disaster. It is important to note that there are many instances when a Gubernatorial SOE is declared, however there is not a need for financial support to carry out emergency actions. Operational and financial recovery assistance may become available from the Federal Government following a disaster. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Emergency or Disaster Declarations require the Governor's activation of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Emergency Management (CEM) Plan, with written justification that the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions have inadequate resources to cope with anticipated or existing consequences of the emergency or disaster.
The Governor is authorized with these broad emergency powers through a number of sources including the Massachusetts Constitution, which vests supreme executive power in the Governor, and Chapter 639 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which spells out the Commonwealth's preparation for and response to emergencies and disasters.