Waffle House Index: The Hurricane Recovery Gauge That Actually Exists

As we saw once again with Hurricane Irene, the actual damage sustained during an intense bout of weather can be difficult to gauge based solely on weather alone… which is why FEMA has the Waffle House index.

Often, losses can be constrained to scattered pockets. While a storm, like Irene, can seem to almost be a dud, events like flooding (as seen in areas of upstate New York and Vermont) can follow and cause unprecedented devastation. And while Irene appeared in some areas to be a dud, the storm impacted many areas severely, and by some estimates will be one of the ten most costly weather events in American history.

Given unpredictable impact of hurricanes irrespective of appearances, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a few methods of measuring the actual damage assessed in any given area hit by a hurricane. There are wind indexes, rainfall counts, and other specific weather-related processes to indicate a storm’s intensity. But recovery depends on a few more complex factors, some unrelated to the intensity of the weather. Enter the Waffle House index.

You might be thinking that the head of FEMA using Waffle House indexes to scale damage is a “heckuva job, Brownie” situation all over again. But in the context of recovery, the indicator cited by FEMA head Craig Fugate actually seems kind of… clever and intuitive.

Essentially, the Waffle House index is based on the fact that the businesses are 24/7 operations and deeply entrenched in a community. The WSJ explained the Waffle House index in better detail:

Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator, at best, and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions.

Fugate added:

“If you get there and the Waffle House is closed?” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has said. “That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”

What do you think about the Waffle House index? Genius or silly?