How Waffle House Helps Measure the Severity of Hurricanes and Other Natural Disasters

As Hurricane Ian pummeled Florida’s western coast, news broke that streets were flooded, houses had been swept away, and Waffle Houses were closing. The last detail seems like an odd thing to focus on, but it’s actually a sign of dire situations. There are a variety of ways in which FEMA assesses and addresses the severity of a natural disaster. Meteorology can predict movement patterns, wind gusts, and precipitation. Resources are dispatched to areas hit hardest by torrential weather, but when the agency needs an accurate ground-level gauge for how a community is coping during a crisis, they turn to Waffle House. Since 2004, FEMA has used what’s been dubbed the “Waffle House Index.” Because the dining chain is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, tracking to see if a location is closed or working with limited supplies can help inform the agency as to whether affected areas are ailing or taking steps toward normalcy. If a Waffle House is closed because there’s a disaster, it’s bad and FEMA calls that red. If they’re open but have a limited menu, that’s yellow, and if they’re green, they’re open and everything is good. For FEMA, the ability to order a plate of smothered and covered hash browns is an important analytic. If a Waffle House is having trouble getting stock, then transportation has been interrupted. If the menu is limited, then it’s possible they have some utilities but not others. If its locations have locked their doors, inclement weather has taken over. The chain’s locations would normally stay open even in severe conditions to help first responders.