Introducing the Waffle House Index

A Waffle House located in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Commercial real estate is everywhere. Sometimes, that means that it can serve a purpose we didn’t expect.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the federal agency charged with responding to a disaster on American soil. FEMA’s responsibilities include accurately assessing the damage left by tornado, flood, hurricane or other disaster, so that good decisions can be made in its wake — how much water or food or shelter to bring, and to exactly where, for example.

It turns out that Waffle House, the classic American roadside restaurant chain known for staying open 24 hours, looms large in FEMA’s mission, and not just as a place to get hash browns scattered, smothered and covered.

As part of its assessment of how hard-hit an area is by disaster, FEMA measures in part by using an informal scale called the Waffle House Index.  The thinking goes like this: as disaster impacts the local Waffle House restaurants, the impact upon waffle and coffee availability reflects accurately the severity upon the surrounding areas.

The chain, sporting more than 2,100 locations in 25 states, is well-known for staying open during extreme weather and reopening quickly after disasters.  It’s that tenacity that helps FEMA gauge how serious an impact a disaster has left behind:

The term was coined by FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate in May 2011, following the 2011 Joplin tornado; the two Waffle House restaurants in Joplin remained open after the EF5 multiple-vortex tornado struck the city on May 22.According to Fugate, “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”

The Index has three levels, based on the extent of operations and service at the restaurant following a storm:

  • Green: the restaurant is serving a full menu, indicating the restaurant has power and damage is limited.
  • Yellow: the restaurant is serving a limited menu, indicating there may be no power or only power from a generator or food supplies may be low.
  • Red: the restaurant is closed, indicating severe damage.

So hats off to the owners, operators and employees of the venerable house that waffles built. We knew they were there for us at four in the morning with eggs over easy, but who knew they were also on the front lines of disaster recovery?

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