The "Waffle House Index" Is One Unusual Way Hurricanes Are Measured

Turns out everyone’s go-to spot for 3 AM hashbrowns is also an important part of both hurricane preparedness and recovery.
September 13, 2018, 5:45pm
A Waffle House at night.
Photo via Flickr user rpavich

As Hurricane Florence slowly approaches the coasts of North and South Carolina, newscasters in Gore-Tex jackets have been dispatched to both states’ beaches, where they’ll spend the next several days furrowing their foreheads and speaking in increasingly excitable tones. The governors of both Carolinas, Georgia, Maryland, and Virginia have all declared states of emergency before the storm makes landfall. And the Waffle House has fired up its own in-house storm center to track the now-Category 2 hurricane.

“The ⁦@WaffleHouse⁩ Storm Center is activated and monitoring #Florence,” the restaurant chain tweeted earlier this week. “Plan ahead and be safe.”

That means it's serious. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been known to monitor what it calls “The Waffle House Index,” because everyone’s go-to spot for 3 AM hashbrowns is also an important part of both hurricane preparedness and recovery. It also helps potentially affected residents decide when they should or shouldn’t freak the fuck out.

Former FEMA director W. Craig Fugate is credited with first using the phrase “Waffle House Index” in 2011 after a powerful tornado hit Joplin, Missouri. Two Waffle House restaurants stayed open, despite the destruction surrounding them, and the Index has since become a shorthand description of how the chain responds to natural disasters.

Under normal circumstances, each of the country’s more than 1,900 Waffle House locations is open 24/7/365. When severe weather hits, if a Waffle House in the path of a storm is open, has power, and is offering its full menu, the Waffle House Index is green. If it’s open, but running from a generator or offering a more limited menu, it’s yellow. And, in the rare cases that the restaurants decide to close, the Index is red.

“[T]he Waffle House test doesn’t just tell us how quickly a business might rebound—it also tells us how the larger community is faring,” FEMA wrote in 2011. “The sooner restaurants, grocery and corner stores, or banks can re-open, the sooner local economies will start generating revenue again—signaling a stronger recovery for that community.”

According to Atlanta magazine, the weather event that resulted in a record number of Red locations was last Hurricane Irma, which hit parts of Florida as a Category 4 storm last August. “Before Irma there was [Hurricane] Katrina, where we had to close 107 restaurants for evacuations,” Waffle House spokesperson Pat Warner said. “So, Irma [with 157 closures] has set the Waffle House record.”

As far as Hurricane Florence goes, we’re not saying that Southerners should panic… but the Waffle House in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina has taped up signs announcing that it will be closed “until the storm passes,” and one of its three locations in Jacksonville, NC has closed as well. (MUNCHIES has reached out to Waffle House for information on other closures or potential closures but has not yet received a response.)

After Waffle House tweeted about its Storm Center yesterday, several people responded that the chain was being irresponsible or unreasonable by staying open, or preventing its employees from obeying evacuation orders. But some current Waffle House staffers quickly replied that they felt downright honored to be a source of stability and comfort during a storm.

“I work in Alabama at Waffle House and we stayed open [during severe weather] not for the business, and not for the first responders but because of heart,” one employee commented on FEMA’s website. “We served wave after wave of scared, tired hungry, lost people for days with no power in the community and no phone [...] There was no political agenda, and no business agenda. We were proud to serve any way we could, and it was an incredible experience.”

Thank you, Waffle House, for keeping us safe.