What Is The Waffle House Index?

FEMA sometimes uses an unexpected metric to figure out how bad storms will be: the Waffle House Index. Hosts Ari Shapiro and Audie Cornish explain the significance of the southern breakfast chain in federal disaster preparation.


The federal government uses many different methods to determine how severe a storm might be, some like Doppler radar from the National Weather Service are incredibly sophisticated.


Others not so much. We give you the Waffle House Index.


PETER SAGAL: Could you tell us what the Waffle House Index is?

CRAIG FUGATE: Sure. If the Waffle House is open, everything's good.


CORNISH: That is former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, the creator of the Waffle House Index, on NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! in 2016.

SHAPIRO: Waffle House restaurants are open 24/7, so the threshold for them to close is extremely high, making them good measurements of a storm's severity.


FUGATE: If a Waffle House is closed because a disaster is bad, we call it red. If they're open but have a limited menu, that's yellow...


FUGATE: ...'Cause they've lost power.

SHAPIRO: And a completely open, full-menu Waffle House is green. Now, as Florence bears down on the Carolinas, some local Waffle Houses are already at red.

PAT WARNER: We have eight shut down now, and we'll shut more down as the storm comes on shore. We're not going to ride the storm out in a Waffle House.

CORNISH: That's Waffle House spokesman Pat Warner. He understands some people might scoff at the idea of using a breakfast joint to gauge the intensity of a hurricane, but he says that keeping an eye on the restaurants after the storm hits can tell you a lot about how a community is recovering.

WARNER: If we're opening up quickly, that's a good sign that community is going to come back quickly. If we are on a limited menu, that's probably because we're - have some utilities out, so it's going to take a bit longer for that community to come back.

SHAPIRO: And no one should underestimate Waffle House's emergency response plans. They are currently sending in what they call jump teams to the Carolinas.

WARNER: We have teams with generators that come in to help supply power and set up a fuel depot. Our CEO is in Charleston right now. Our executive vice president's already in North Carolina and South Carolina, ready for the storm.

CORNISH: With the jump teams in place, Warner says the griddles will be hot again in no time.

WARNER: Yeah, we're a little-bitty 24-hour short-order cook place, and that's what people see us as. And we're proud to be that. And that's one of the reasons we strive to come back quickly after a storm - 'cause we want to have that place where people can gather and talk about the storm over eggs and bacon and check in on their neighbors.

CORNISH: And while it's had its charms, the Waffle House Index is no longer a key indicator. Foodwise, they're still fans, but FEMA says they use many other factors to better gauge how a community is faring after a storm.

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