Imagine a place that’s always open and where all are welcome. A place with food that’s cheap and affordable. There’s no frills. Nothing’s labeled ‘artisan’ or ‘organic’. You’ll only find simple, satisfyingly good food with a pinch of Southern charm. Should you ever find yourself in the southern US, look for the iconic black and yellow sign, and take in all the glory that is Waffle House.
Since opening over 60 years ago, Waffle House has become an American staple, developing a cult-like following of loyal diners. It’s inspired books. It gets name-dropped in rap songs. And not even celebrity chefs are immune to it’s allure.
But did you know Waffle Houses are also used to determine the effect of storms and how much assistance might be needed for disaster recovery? Can this place get any better?
Waffle Houses are known for being open 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. They’re open so often, there are even urban legends about how Waffle House restaurants don’t have locks. Not even mother nature can seem to stop Waffle House. Be it a hurricane, tornado, hell or high water, the chain has a strong reputation for staying open even during the most extreme weather.
This all leads us to the Waffle House Index, which was coined by Craig Fugate in 2004 during the midst of Hurricane Charley in Florida. Fugate was serving as Director of Emergency Management for Florida when the hurricane struck with devastating force. As Fugate worked from his office, he decided to head out with a few of his team members to assess some of the damage, and to try and find some food.
The group ended up at a Waffle House, one of the few places in the community actually open. Fugate was so impressed that the restaurant was still operating, albeit with a limited menu, that he was inspired to create a storm index based on the chain.
When Fugate became FEMA Administrator in 2009, the organization began to informally use Waffle Houses as a metric to determine how quickly a community might be able to bounce back from an emergency. As Fugate has said in the past, “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”
The Waffle House Index
The Waffle House Index has three levels, each based on the extent of operations and service following a storm.
- Green – Waffle House is serving a full menu. The restaurant has power and damage is limited.
- Yellow – Waffle House is serving a limited menu. There may be no power or only power from a generator. Food supplies may be low.
- Red – Waffle House is closed. This indicates severe damage.
The Waffle House Index is not just used as an indicator of how an individual business is doing, but as a microcosm for the entire community as a whole. If a Waffle House closes, it signals that other elements of the community, like grocery stores and banks, might also be closed, and that extra disaster relief might be needed.
Has the Index Ever Been Red?
While Waffle Houses have earned their reputation for always being open, sometimes, mother nature proves to be too strong. On Thursday, October 6th, 2016, the index reached red when all Waffle House restaurants on a 90-mile stretch of Florida’s I-95 between Titusville and Fort Pierce were closed. This was brought on by Hurricane Matthew and its 115 mph winds.
The closings sparked much discussion in the press and on social media, where some people took the news as some sort of sign of the end of days. Apparently, people really love their waffles.
Today, the Waffle House Index lives on as a means of assessing damage after a storm or natural disaster. Rest assured, FEMA still uses more scientific measures like wind, rainfall, and other weather information for determining the scale of a storm. That said, the Waffle House Index is useful because it is both a simple and an effective measure for predicting the potential extent of storm relief.
So, whether you like your hash browns smothered, covered, or all the way, you have got to respect a restaurant chain that can dish out both delicious food and important weather information at the same time.