In the modern history of the United States’ response to disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic stands out as uniquely deadly and widespread, posing an emergency simultaneously in all fifty states and killing Americans in each of them, while causing a tumultuous national economic downturn with job losses unseen since the Great Depression. To combat the virus, local, state and federal agencies launched a robust emergency response, unprecedented in its scale. Although unprecedented, these response efforts also revealed—indeed, magnified—many of the weaknesses and tensions extant within our emergency management regime.
This article identifies and analyzes several of those weaknesses and tensions. Overall, it concludes that while emergencies may be “locally executed, state managed, and federally supported,”1 the federal government must play a central and catalytic role in harmonizing national policy across the federalist system, and ensuring that states cooperate rather than compete with one another. The article proposes policy changes that would improve the United States’ approach to all threats and hazards while better integrating emergency management into the larger homeland security enterprise.