Over the last decade, the impact of emergencies on the American state has become the subject of renewed interest. While early literature in the post-9/11 era often overlooked the historical development of crisis governance in the United States, many scholars have begun to uncover the precedents that continue to shape modern emergency management. In an effort to clarify the main analytical assumptions of the existing scholarship, I construct three models of emergency statebuilding: permanent emergency state, national security state, and contract state. The models each share an underlying framework of historical institutionalism, which defines the state as a stabilized material institutional structure that is disrupted by emergency conditions—exogenous shocks that cannot be incorporated into the normal statebuilding processes or legal order. Yet this perspective is ill-equipped to explain institutional change. I propose discursive institutionalism as an approach that emphasizes how discourse and ideas construct emergencies as objects of government management—in different ways, at different times. I then illustrate the utility of this perspective by demonstrating the influence of national planning ideas on efforts to prepare the state for emergencies before they occur.