The Waffle House Index: FEMA’s Litmus Test for Natural Disasters

How a Southern chain of breakfast restaurants play a vital role in FEMA’s natural disaster assessment.



As the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) starts to assess the damage brought on by a natural disaster, they use a simple measure to quantify its impact: The Waffle House Index. So what does a southern breakfast chain and the impact of natural disasters have in common? Let us explain.



What Exactly is a Waffle House and Why Does FEMA Care If They Stay Open?


For those of you in the Northern or Western parts of the United States, Waffle House is a restaurant chain that as their website states, has around 2,100 restaurants in 25 states. Even though Waffle Houses have become more common in the last decade or so, the breakfast chain is still the most prevalent in the South and has become an institution in the region.


So why does FEMA care about Waffle House? Well, two reasons:


  • First, Waffle Houses tend to be near highway exits and littered throughout other rural parts of the South. More specifically, they tend to be in areas that natural disasters like hurricanes, tornados, and floods generally occur. Because of that, Waffle Houses end up being in ideal locations where FEMA would be interested in.

  • Second, Waffle Houses never close. Not only do they pride themselves on staying open 24/7, 365 days a year; but if conditions get really bad during severe weather, they generally don’t close right away.


That’s why for FEMA, the number of Waffle Houses open in a set area can be a helpful indicator to how severe a storm is.



What is the Waffle House Index?


As we said earlier, Waffle Houses generally won’t close for severe weather. So when is closes, people generally start to worry. The guidelines in which Waffle House decides to close a restaurant is known as the “Waffle House Index.” Essentially they’re guidelines to deciding what the restaurant will serve (or if they should stay open) based on various conditions. According to the Waffle House guidelines, there are three levels:


  • Green Level: The store is open and functioning normally.

  • Yellow Level: The store is still open, but only serving from its limited menu (serving nonperishable food that doesn’t need any refrigeration). If a Waffle House is operating at a Yellow Level – assuming there isn’t any damage to the restaurant – that usually means circumstances outside are pretty bad, but not bad enough to garner any real emergency response. Also, this is a level that a Waffle House sometimes goes to after a natural disaster (ie tornado, hurricane) has taken place.

  • Red Level: The restaurant is closed, which indicates either severe damage to the restaurant itself or severe weather that is impeding the Waffle House in continuing normal operations. Or as a FEMA official had once put it, “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad.”


Because Waffle House has a reputation of staying open, even during extreme weather, and having chains out in rural areas in the Tornado/Hurricane prone locations; they end up making the perfect litmus test for FEMA officials. Usually when FEMA needs to make a quick assessment on the severity of weather conditions in a certain area or needs to figure out how badly a particular disaster had disrupted a community, it isn’t out of the ordinary for them to base that initial assessment on whether a Waffle House is still open or not!


Or as Maple Syrup put it on Twitter:



So a general rule of thumb, if you ever see a Waffle House closed in anticipation of severe weather, it may be a good idea to evacuate from there immediately!



(Photo Credits: Waffle House Website, Google Images)


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