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Waffle House Index for Hurricanes

OM in the News has previously looked at the Waffle House Index, used to measure the damage from hurricanes. The index made the news again for Hurricane Ian. According to the Boston Globe, 40 Waffle Houses were closed at the height of the storm.

This index was developed in 2004, during Hurricane Charley, by former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. FEMA noticed that some of the last places open are Waffle House, and thus was born the concept of the Waffle House Index.

The basics of the Waffle House Index are:

  • If a Waffle House is open, there’s minimal damage.  It is classified as a green light–help not needed.
  • If a Waffle House is open with a limited menu, there’s some damage.  This is classified as a yellow light—look closely, some help might be needed.
  • However, if a Waffle House is closed, damage is substantial.  It is classified as a red light—help needed.

Waffle Houses are known for being some of the last to close, and the first to open. The company has a special team dedicated to keeping Waffle Houses open during times of emergency. They believe that their restaurants being open brings a sense of normalcy to residents of impacted areas.

Of course, FEMA doesn’t rely exclusively on Waffle Houses for its analysis. The status of several types of businesses helps FEMA classify the amount of need in an area. Restaurants, stores (especially those selling lumber/hardware), grocery stores, and gas stations being open indicate that it is possible for people to return and begin recovery.

Video Spotlight:  

This post is based on the CNBC article, People Are Looking to Waffle House as Hurricane Ian Makes Landfall Again—Here’s Why, by Annika Kim Constantino, September 30, 2022; the FEMA post, It’s a Little Bit of Normal, by FEMA, September 20, 2017; the Boston Globe article, How Floridians truly knew Hurricane Ian would be serious: Waffle House was closed, by Devra First, October 4, 2022; and the YouTube video in the Spotlight. Image source: Aaron Roeth Photography

Discussion Questions:

1.  Why is the use of the Waffle House Index important?

Guidance: It provides a quick assessment of the damage, which can then be used to determine the next steps in recovery. Specifically, this rule-of-thumb assessment can help FEMA determine the amount of support needed in the impacted area.

2. Is the Waffle House Index a good measure of damage?

Guidance: With FEMA looking beyond just Waffle House restaurants, it appears to be a good measure. People can’t return to their homes until they can live and start rebuilding. If stores are not open, rebuilding is very difficult.

You could argue that infrastructure, such as electricity, water, and open streets is more important. But, if businesses are open, this is a good indication that basic infrastructure is operating.

3. How does the Waffle House Index fit into the overall recovery process?

Guidance: As overall recovery is a one-time event, a project management approach to the overall recovery is appropriate. However, as not all activities are known in advance, an agile project management approach should be used.

The Waffle House Index serves to assess the amount of damage, providing input into the developing project plan. It helps to prioritize where recovery efforts should go.

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