Hash Browns Through Hurricanes: How the ‘Waffle House Index’ Reflects Storm Damage

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Jim Stratford / Bloomberg News / Getty Images

After a hurricane ravages a region of the country, it seems to make sense to check for flooding, power outages and property damage. But it might be best to just check the local Waffle House.

According to the Wall Street Journal, emergency officials know that one of the first things to spring back after a storm is the trusty diner chain, popular in the South and up the East Coast. If a Waffle House in the area isn’t open, that means trouble.

FEMA’s “Waffle House Index” gives a green light when a full menu is being served, yellow means a limited menu due to a loss of power and red means the restaurant is closed.  “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed?” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said, according to the Journal. “That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”

(PHOTOS: Irene Floods Devastate New Jersey, Vermont)

Waffle House restaurants show unique resilience after natural disasters. During Hurricane Irene, 22 restaurants lost power. But by Wednesday, all but one were back up and running. Many restaurants were still out of power when they reopened, doling out a limited menu using their gas grills.

Waffle Houses are unique in this quick turnaround; the chain was recently ranked in the top four for emergency response, along with Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe’s. And it pays off — some managers told the Journal that sales can double or even triple after a storm. A member of the company’s crisis-management team says, though, that with the increased cost of manpower and supplies after a storm, staying open is more about marketing and community outreach than profit. The chain spends nearly nothing on advertising, relying instead on positive word of mouth to boost sales.

So it’s truly a win-win — the Waffle House gets a public-relations boost while residents affected by storms get some much-needed hot food. Plus, emergency officials know how to measure storm damage. Talk about Southern hospitality.

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