FEMA's most whimsical metric? The Waffle House index.

What does a fast-casual diner have to do with natural disasters? Quite a lot, actually.

  • FEMA employs many metrics to assess the severity of natural disasters, but one of the strangest is the Waffle House index.
  • Because Waffle Houses have incredibly robust disaster management policies, their response to a natural disaster can be used to assess how quickly a community can get back on its feet.
  • If your area is about to be hit by a hurricane or an earthquake, look to the local Waffle House: it's not time to panic unless they're closed.

If you've ever driven down an interstate highway in the American South, you have undoubtedly seen it: 11 yellow squares each containing a letter to spell "Waffle House." It can be 4:00 in the morning, and you can reliably walk into a Waffle House and order cheap, tough-to-screw-up eggs and bacon, and get a cup of coffee to keep yourself awake while on the road. It's a pit stop, a diner, a cultural icon, and — surprisingly — a staple of disaster management.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a lot of ways to assess the severity of a natural disaster. For tornadoes, there's the Fujita scale, the Mercalli scale for earthquakes, and the Waffle House index for pretty much anything.

Waffle Houses are almost always open. It's part of their charm. And it's for this reason that they can be used to measure the severity of, say, a hurricane. "Yeah, we're a little-bitty 24-hour short-order cook place, and that's what people see us as," said Waffle House spokesperson Pat Warner. "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."

Getting serious about waffles

People wait in the rain to enter a Waffle House a day after Hurricane Florence hit the area, on September 15, 2018 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Photo credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images

When a natural disaster approaches an area, Waffle House sends its upper management to the region and brings generators and extra supplies. They also bring in so-called "jump teams," composed of Waffle House workers from several states over to cover the shifts at the affected Waffle Houses. The reasoning here is that local workers have either been evacuated or are busy taking care of their families. What's more, jump teams come from several states over, not adjoining states — individuals from neighboring states are assumed to be busy taking care of the people evacuating the affected state.

The point is, Waffle House is prepared.

So, if a Waffle House is closed down, then it can be said with confidence that a natural disaster is severely affecting the local area. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, one Waffle House in South Carolina only closed after its ceiling tiles began to fall. During 2018's beastly Hurricane Michael, the diner franchise took the dramatic step of closing 30 restaurants, and for good reason: Michael would become the 10th costliest hurricane to strike the United States, causing approximately $25 billion in damages.

Former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, the inventor of the Waffle House index, explains how it works:

"If a Waffle House store is open and offering a full menu, the index is green. If it is open but serving from a limited menu, it's yellow. When the location has been forced to close, the index is red. Because Waffle House is well-prepared for disasters… it's rare for the index to hit red."

But the real aim of the Waffle House index isn't to measure how hard the winds are blowing or how high the flood water is going to rise. It's meant to measure how quickly a community can get back up on its feet. If the Waffle House index is green, local businesses are likely to reopen soon. If the index is yellow, it's because the Waffle House doesn't have access to the utilities necessary to cook certain dishes and has been forced to offer a limited menu. In this case, the community will almost certainly not have access to the same utilities, making recovery a challenge. And if the index is red, then local businesses are likely to stay closed for a while, and, by extension, residents and families will have a much harder time recovering.

"The sooner restaurants, grocery and corner stores, or banks can re-open," said Fugate, "the sooner local economies will start generating revenue again — signaling a stronger recovery for that community. The success of the private sector in preparing for and weathering disasters is essential to a community's ability to recover in the long run."

So, if you find yourself in a dangerous situation, do what FEMA does and look to the Waffle House. Then, you'll know whether you're fine or in serious trouble.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Beyond Meat announces plan to sell ‘ground beef’ in stores. Shares skyrocket.

Beyond Beef sizzles and marbleizes just like real beef, Beyond Meat says.

Culture & Religion
  • Shares of Beyond Meat opened at around $200 on Tuesday morning, falling to nearly $170 by the afternoon.
  • Wall Street analysts remain wary of the stock, which has been on a massive hot streak since its IPO in May.
  • Beyond Meat faces competition from Impossible Foods and, as of this week, Tyson.
Keep reading Show less

Thumbs up? Map shows Europe’s hitchhiking landscape

Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
Strange Maps
  • A popular means of transportation from the 1920s to the 1980s, hitchhiking has since fallen in disrepute.
  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
  • In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B.
Keep reading Show less

Can you guess which state has the most psychopaths?

A recent study used data from the Big Five personality to estimate psychopathy prevalence in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C.

Surprising Science
  • The study estimated psychopathy prevalence by looking at the prevalence of certain traits in the Big Five model of personality.
  • The District of Columbia had the highest prevalence of psychopathy, compared to other areas.
  • The authors cautioned that their measurements were indirect, and that psychopathy in general is difficult to define precisely.
Keep reading Show less