What Is the Waffle House Index? The True Story From the Man Who Created It, Craig Fugate

The iconic yellow sign. The cheap, yet popular food. The lights that never seem to dim, even as hurricanes and natural catastrophes bare down on the communities around them.

The late CNN’s Anthony Bourdain perhaps had the best description of the diner-like restaurant chain that serves hot meals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“It is indeed marvelous. An irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts,” Bourdain once said. “Where everybody, regardless of race, creed, color or degree of inebriation, is welcomed. It’s warm, yellow glow, a beacon of hope and salvation, inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered all across the south to come inside. A place of safety and nourishment. It never closes. It is always faithful, always there for you.”

Waffle House is home to one of the most well-known unofficial indicators used by FEMA to measure the severity of natural disasters: The "Waffle House Index." The restaurant chain even has a "Waffle House News" Twitter account and a Waffle House Storm Center. FEMA offers live tracking to show which of the chain's restaurants have closed and which remain open, a feature that will undoubtedly be looked at by East Coast residents in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Florence.

But the birth of the unusual storm indicator was not on purpose. Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate is the man behind the infamous Waffle House Index. He spoke to Newsweek on Thursday to tell the story of how a morning ritual and a casual observation turned into a nationwide indicator used by the government and millions of people to assess storm damage.

As the man who once ran Florida's Division of Emergency Management, Fugate’s job took him to southwest Florida in 2004 to survey the destruction left by Hurricane Charley. The Category 4 storm made landfall near Fort Myers, causing catastrophic damage for a storm that was relatively small in size compared to other hurricanes. State officials and meteorologists joined Fugate to inspect the damage-stricken region in the days after Charley.

“We wanted to get something to eat because the day would be packed and didn’t know when we’d get to eat again,” said Fugate, describing their search for breakfast one morning after the storm. “But there was nothing open.”

So, Fugate and his crew drove south along the interstate until they came across a Waffle House that was open for business. However, the restaurant only had a partial menu. The power had gone out, rendering some of the products in the freezer unusable. “But it was a hot breakfast,” Fugate said. “We ate and went on about the day.”

The next morning, Fugate and his crew noticed a different Waffle House near their hotel had reopened. “We went in there and it was the same deal: Limited menu and it had just gotten power back up,” Fugate said.

Craig Fugate Explains How The Waffle House Index Came to Be A Waffle House is seen after Tropical Storm Gordon passed through the area on September 5 in Bayou La Batre, Alabama. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

By this time, surrounding counties were requesting state aid from Fugate to help with recovery efforts. He and his team had begun monitoring indicators like school closures, power outages and search-and-rescue operations to determine what areas were in the most immediate need. They provided a color-coded map of the area to give local agencies and the public a better perspective as to where the severity of damage was located and where the state would begin administering help first. 

“Well, my guys slipped in an image about the Waffle House Index,” Fugate said. “By now, we had figured out where the Waffle Houses were closed, which had no power or limited menus, and which ones were open. If they weren’t closed and had a full menu, you were moving well into recovery operations and it was much more stable.”

The Waffle House Index became comprised of three color-coded levels: Green, yellow and red. If a Waffle House was fully open and operational, the storm’s damage was likely minimal in the area. Businesses were reopening and other services were becoming fully operational, receiving a green stamp of approval. If a Waffle House only had a partial menu, it was a yellow warning sign that the area was undergoing problems of possible power outages or lack of running water. Other restaurants were most likely closed and daily life had yet to resume to normal. But if a Waffle House was closed, that was bad news. It meant the area was most severely hit and still struggling to recover.

“If you’re sending teams into an area of impact and they start seeing damages, is this an area where they need to stop and go to work in, or do they keep going? If you stopped the first time you came across a downed-tree, how do you know you’re in the most heavily-impacted area?” Fugate said. "In many cases, the Waffle Houses were one of those indicators.”

Fugate and his crew determined that if you got to the interstate and the Waffle House was up and running, it’s most likely not the most impacted area. “Keep going,” Fugate said. “If you got to an area and the Waffle House is open but there’s a limited menu, you knew you had power outages that were compromising freezers. If you got to areas where the Waffle House was closed, that’s not a good sign. That’s probably a place you need to start going to work.”

More natural disasters, including three additional hurricanes that directly hit Florida that year, forced Fugate and his team to travel the state. There was one indicator that came back time and time again that best represented where the worst storm damage was located after a major weather event. “The one thing that was true for almost any disaster was if there was anything open or got open first, it was a Waffle House,” Fugate said.

By the time Fugate was appointed as the head of FEMA in May 2009 by then-President Barack Obama, the Waffle House Index "had followed me there,” Fugate said.   

What Is the Waffle House Index? The True Story From The Man Who Created It, Craig Fugate President Barack Obama listens to FEMA administrator Craig Fugate during a video teleconference led by FEMA to monitor the federal response to Hurricane Irene at FEMA Headquarters on August 27, 2011, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

Fugate remembered responding to a deadly tornado that had torn through Joplin, Missouri, in 2011. The storm had left more than 100 people dead. Joplin's water system had been damaged so badly that there was no water pressure, leaving the entire city's residents and businesses without running water. 

But that "always faithful, always there for you” restaurant chain that Anthony Bourdain admired so much was ready to serve the community. The local Waffle House was still open, and it’s where Fugate and his crew headed to breakfast. The restaurant had found a way around the water pressure issue to remain open, unlike the various other businesses in the area.

“They were making coffee by pouring bottled water into the coffee maker, and they were serving breakfast with plastic plates and utensils because they couldn’t wash anything," Fugate recalled. "But it was hot coffee and a hot meal to start the day.”

When he was leaving the restaurant, Fugate and his team noticed several cars appeared to be parked at the Starbucks about a block away. But when they got closer, they realized the people weren’t there for the coffee. The Starbucks wasn’t even open.

“[Starbucks] didn’t turn off their Wi-Fi, so people were pulling up to the Starbucks to get access to the internet,” Fugate said. “But because there was no water, they weren’t open."

Waffle House has become a place for residents and first responders to often receive their first meal after a natural disaster, offering a fleeting moment of normalcy for those severely impacted. As those in Hurricane Florence's path begin to recover, the yellow glow of their local Waffle House could likely provide assurance there's a hot meal waiting for them just around the corner.

"Go down to the Waffle House, they’re making coffee by pouring water in the coffee maker out of bottles of water. It kind of shows you the different philosophies," Fugate said. "Waffle House gets open, while everyone else has to wait for the infrastructure to allow them to reopen."

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