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Measuring hurricane severity against ‘the Waffle House Index’

FEMA uses Southern-based restaurant chain’s menu item availability to informally gauge storm recovery

Traffic flashes by breakfast diners at a Waffle House near Dawsonville, Ga. (AP Photo/Ric Feld, File)

Catastrophic storm surges, wind and rainfall threaten the safety of Florida residents in the path of Hurricane Ian — but will Waffle Houses remain open?

For many Southerners, Waffle House serves as a rite of passage for hot-served breakfast. No matter the time or weather, there’s a good chance your nearest location is still open. Aside from Waffle House’s cult following, it’s also gained attention from the federal government, specifically, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Given that closed Waffle House locations are such a rare sight, the federal government has taken notice of how the breakfast chain operates in post-emergency conditions.

Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate coined the phrase “the Waffle House Index” — an informal metric used to approximate the scale of assistance required for disaster recovery, according to FEMA.

Instead of measuring how many locations remain open, the index measures the availability of items on the menu.

  • Green: Full menu and power available.
  • Yellow: Limited menu and utilities.
  • Red: Closed due to severe damage.

According to FEMA, local businesses play an important role in post-emergency recovery.

“If stores can open, people can go back to work. If people can go back to work, they can return to at least one piece of a normal life — and that little piece of normalcy can make a big difference,” FEMA said in a statement.

FEMA’s projected path of Hurricane Ian superimposed over map of Waffle House locations. (Map: FEMA/Waffle House, Inc.)

The consistent accuracy of the index is due in part to the sheer number of locations across the South. In Georgia, where the chain is based, you’re never too far from the nearest Waffle House, given its 435 locations — some within eyesight of each other.

A Waffle House spokesperson told FreightWaves company leaders were unavailable for comment.

“Given the situation on the ground now, many of [our senior leaders] are heading to the area. … Our focus needs to be on our people and the communities we serve,” said Njeri Boss, vice president of public relations.

However, Boss confirmed that 21 locations in Florida have already closed due to the storm.

“These are in the predicted path of the storm and/or are in low-lying areas where significant storm impact is expected,” she said.

Waffle House employee Cindy Whittamore cooks, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Dry Ridge, Ky. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

While it’s rare for a Waffle House to close, many locations across the South were forced to lock their doors at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to emergency restrictions and staff shortages.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma forced 157 locations to close their doors, according to Atlanta Magazine. To date, this is the record for closures due to weather conditions.

The chain has taken on the responsibility of serving food when no one else can. The restaurant employs “Jump Teams” that spring into action after a storm.

“They are volunteers who are transported to the affected location, whether that is by vehicle or plane,” Boss said. “They often travel with needed supplies and are sent to assist the local employees to handle potentially larger-than-usual numbers of customers after a storm passes.”

According to maps provided by Waffle House and FEMA, hundreds of locations are in Hurricane Ian’s projected path. It’s unclear how many may close as a result.

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Jeremy Kariuki

Based in Georgia, Jeremy is a reporter for FreightWaves. He attained his bachelor's in journalism and emerging media from Kennesaw State University. He also served in the Georgia Air National Guard as a C-130 Crew Chief for six years, holding an associate's in aircraft maintenance technology.