Why the Waffle House Index is important when evaluating severe weather events

Coined in 2004, the Waffle House Index doesn't actually belong to the Waffle House restaurtant chain.

You’ve probably heard of the Waffle House Index, but do you know what it does or how it got its name? 

The term was coined in 2004 by then Florida Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate. It was a passive way of knowing how serious damage may be in a region, based on how many Waffle House locations were still open and serving after a storm.

So the Waffle House Index is an informal metric named after the Waffle House restaurant chain to determine the effect of a storm and the likely scale of assistance required for disaster recovery.

The measure is based on the reputation of Waffle House for staying open during extreme weather and for reopening quickly after severe weather events such as tornadoes or hurricanes.

"Well, a lot of people will think, well, they're staying open so they can make more money. In fact, we lose money on these disasters. It's not about money. It's about the people, we're in the people business. And so over the years, we've learned what people need in terms of trying to get a community back on its feet, in terms of helping our associates be able to take care of their families," said Njeri Boss, Vice President of Public Relations for Waffle House. 

Waffle House, which do a significant amount of their business in the South where a frequent amount of hurricanes can take place, have good risk management and disaster preparedness. 

"We actually have a storm playbook that every restaurant has. We revise it each year as needed. And it tells the management team what to do in the event of an emergency," said Boss.

The restaurants have menus for the times they are without water, electricity, and even gas. The menus are limited and do not offer all of the options. This combination means the Waffle House Index rarely reaches the red level.

The Waffle House Index has three levels based on the amount of service that the restaurant can provide right after a bad storm:

  • 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 completely

The Waffle House Index sits alongside more formal measures of wind, rainfall, and other weather information, such as the Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which are used to indicate the intensity of a storm.

Boss did reiterate that the Waffle House Index doesn’t actually belong to Waffle House, but they appreciate their name being used. 

"People know about it. People know about it out of the country. I get calls about it all the time to talk about the Waffle House Index and how it works. And I have to remind people it's not ours. But hey, we appreciate the name being used. I know that there are lots of other businesses as well that emergency management will look to. But Waffle House is the first," said Boss. 

If a Waffle House closes before a storm, it is a sign that they expect extremely severe weather and that people in the area should also evacuate.

FEMA does pay attention to their closures, as it helps them indicate how many people have evacuated from a town. That knowledge helps FEMA decide what they need to do after the storm. 

So your friendly, neighborhood Waffle House may just be the resource to use (along with FOX Weather) to help you consider what you need to do before, during, and after severe weather events.