The Waffle House has become much more than an American road trip staple since it first opened in Avondale Estates, Georgia in 1955. It doesn't just serve up the best waffles, it offers hashbrowns in a secret code, it has its own record label, and most importantly, it is the unofficial measure of natural disaster. Ever since the destructive tornado that decimated Joplin, Missouri, the Waffle House Index has become known as an informal measure of risk and disaster following a tragic event, most often by weather.
Following Hurricane Irma, as reported by Atlanta Magazine, 157 Waffle House locations closed. As Waffle House spokesperson Pat Warner told the magazine,
"Before Irma there was [Hurricane] Katrina, where we had to close 107 restaurants for evacuations. So Irma has set the Waffle House record."
Why the Waffle House? Well, it's open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As for representative numbers, 25 states have at least one Waffle House location, and the chain boasts over 2,100 locations in the United States.
Its reliability as a business has been proven time and time again, which is why FEMA, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, uses it as an unofficial marker. As FEMA wrote in a blog post in 2011, not long after the casual remark was made in Missouri,
"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."
The Waffle House test also signals way more than immediate needs. The speed at which the businesses reopen following a red index often accurately predicts when the community or town might rebound, as well. It ties into stocking restaurants, supermarkets, and smaller local businesses.
The company, born in the Georgia basin, prides itself on not only its pre-disaster plans, but its post-disaster plans, as well. Prior to a major storm where evacuations are ordered, the company will "enlist 'jump teams,' or experienced managers from other states to assist in keeping locations open as long as safe." After a storm, as Pat Warner told Atlanta Magazine, "If the Waffle House is closed, our associates are not making money, so we feel there is a responsibility to them to get opened quickly after a storm."
The neighborhood spirit of the Waffle House is one that makes walking into every location feel familiar. A backbone of the South, the Waffle House is always there to lift up its communities following natural disaster.