Waffle House has carved out its niche among Southern road-trippers and the late-night bar crowd with a promise of 24-hour constancy. Its laminated menus and round-the-clock breakfast service are the same as ever. The yellow roadside sign has not changed since 1955, and the diner chain has stood by the promise that its doors will never close.
If they do, it may be time to panic.
The Joplin Globe reports that the emphasis on 24-hour service – hurricane or shine – has earned the company a reputation among professional emergency managers, who make rough estimates of storm damage by looking to the local Waffle House.
If the restaurant is serving a full menu, it means the building has power and damage may not be that serious.
If the diner is offering a limited menu, it means power may be out in an area as cooks rely on gas-powered grills and food supply lines may be cut off.
In that case, the Waffle House index is yellow.
If the restaurant is closed, the index goes to red.
“If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work,” W. Craig Fugate, a former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has said.
Fugate came up with the index after the Joplin tornado in 2011, according to FEMA’s “executive summary” of the index, which was released to the public via a Freedom of Information Act request.
Despite the catastrophic damage in Joplin, when thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses were damaged and destroyed, the area’s Waffle House restaurants were both open, indicating to the emergency managers arriving from outside Missouri that the local economy had not shut down entirely. The Waffle House at 3506 S. Range Line Road was on the south side of the tornado’s path, while the Waffle House at 1208 S. Madison St. in Webb City was to the north of the storm path.
Fugate was reminded of something he had noticed earlier: Even in the midst of disaster, Waffle House never seems to close.
FEMA considers the index “part of its initial situational awareness,” according to the internal documents. It also uses aerial photographs, wind speeds and other tools to assess damage.
While the index is informal, by monitoring the status of private companies in a disaster, FEMA hopes to better coordinate its placement of goods and services, the documents show, and it found a place in FEMA disaster-monitoring software. When a winter storm hit the Southeastern United States in 2014, the agency mapped all the Waffle Houses in the region, coding them under the heading “Waffle House Index,” the documents show.
Pat Warner, vice president of culture for Waffle House, says the company continues to regularly send the index to FEMA and state agencies. There are more than 1,500 Waffle House restaurants around the country, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Warner credits Fugate with encouraging communication between the private sector and government disaster agencies.
This cooperation was on display during a 2014 winter storm that crippled roads and airports and left 22 people dead. Phil Strouse, an official with FEMA’s department of external affairs, addressed an email to “private sector partners” informing businesses about the agency’s response to the snowstorm and asking for updates.
Warner, the Waffle House executive, responded with a list of seven locations that were open but without electrical power in an email obtained by the Globe. In parentheses, he added “Waffle House Index (equals) Yellow.”
The company, which spends little money on advertising, has embraced the index as a recognition of its corporate culture. Not only does it insist that its diners stay open every day, all day, it promotes the “urban myth” that its restaurants have no locks.
Despite any gains in customer loyalty, disaster readiness doesn’t help Waffle House profits.
“It gets into a lot of money,” Warner says of sending backup food, fuel and people to disaster-struck stores. “From the business standpoint, it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. We look at it more from the people standpoint.”
And while both area stores escaped the 2011 tornado, employees were sent from surrounding stores to relieve area workers impacted by the storm.
Keith Stammer, director of emergency management for Joplin and Jasper County, says the index has become a “buzzword” among disaster professionals. He sees it primarily as a tool for federal emergency managers who must step off a plane and quickly assess the damage.
“Trying to get some objective ground truth is difficult, and this is one way,” he said.
April Tarrant, director of the county’s 911 center, hadn’t heard of the index, but she said it could come in handy when 911 calls start flooding in after a disaster. Many people who call for help after disaster strikes simply want to know where to go, she says.
“One thing that would be important for us is: What’s open for food?” she said.
The index doesn’t have an official place in emergency plans for the area, but Stammer admits it wouldn’t be the last thing on his mind in an emergency.
“I would go by and see if they were open or not,” he said.
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