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The Waffle House Index, and How It Helps in a Storm

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A damaged Waffle House in Biloxi, Mississippi, after a hurricane. Photo by Carol M Highsmith for the Library of Congress
When all else fails, when disaster is upon you, when the Angel has broken the seal and read from the scroll and fire and blood rains from heaven and the great Beasts sing before the throne...
...Waffle House is open.

– Kingfisher & Wombat, Twitter, 29.09.22 (during Hurricane Ian)

Many people in the southeastern United States treasure Waffle House restaurants for their legendary menu, which includes hash browns1. Breakfast food is available at all hours, including waffles (hence the name), toast, and eggs - fried, scrambled, or in omelette form. Others praise the friendliness of the wait staff or the welcoming nature of a clean, well-lighted place off the highway that is open 24/7. Still others laud the company's enlightened treatment of their workers, who receive good benefits, such as insurance and paid time off, as well as food while working.

Other customers enjoy the music. The juke box features specially commissioned songs such as this one.

I rubbed my eyes and shook my head – how could this really be?
A buncha juicy raisins were performing just for me
They sang and danced and made me laugh, they told a joke or two…

– Danny Jones, 'Raisins in My Toast', Waffle House Records

But for FEMA, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, what matters in a real disaster involving the southeastern United States – which includes areas particularly vulnerable to hurricanes – is the Waffle House Index. If the Waffle House is closed, Life as We Know It is definitely ending.

The Waffle House Index

According to AccuWeather, a US television meteorological network, the Waffle House Index is as follows.

  • GREEN: Full menu; the restaurant sustained little or no damage and has full power.
  • YELLOW: Limited menu; the restaurant is running out of food or has limited power.
  • RED: The Waffle House is closed due to severe flooding or damage.

According to Craig Fugate, a former FEMA director: 'If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That's really bad. That's where you go to work.'

The main reason for this informal index of emergencies is that Waffle House has the best record for remaining open in order to provide communities with a gathering place, shelter, and hot food. To do this, they have a plan.

Waffle House Planning

Waffle House has 'jump teams' – teams of specialists who spring into action during emergencies. Local employees may be otherwise occupied, so the jump teams come in from outside with food trucks and repair experts to keep the local diners open and running. As of 2019, the organisation had 1,950 restaurants in 25 states, many of them along the Atlantic coast. This means that hurricanes are likely to have an impact on their business. The jump teams are their response.

When a local hotel owner couldn't put up a jump team because his hotel had been devastated by Hurricane Florence in 2018, the team struck a deal: they cleaned up the hotel and got things running. In return, they had lodgings. Waffle House's ability to team with other businesses and FEMA set a precedent. Following their example, other businesses, such as DIY stores and drugstores, now work on co-ordinated rapid response in emergencies.

Hurricane season can be a scary time Down South. The ability to dig into a plate of hash browns while listening to 'Raisins in My Toast' may seem like a small thing. But providing food, a safe haven, and an information centre in an emergency makes Waffle House value for money in local communities.

1Hash browns are chopped-up potatoes fried on a grill. Options include: Scattered (plain), Smothered (sautéed with onions), Covered (with melted American cheese), Chunked (with chunks of grilled hickory-smoked ham), Diced (with grilled tomato slices), Peppered (with jalapeño peppers), Capped (with grilled button mushrooms), Topped (covered in chili (a dish of chili beans, Jimmy Dean sausage, tomato, and onions)), Country (with sausage gravy on top), and All the Way (with all of those toppings, if your stomach can stand it). There are allegedly 1,572,864 possible combinations of hash browns. If you are planning a trip to the Southeast US, you can think about them on the plane.

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