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How FEMA uses Waffle House to gauge hurricane, disaster severity

There is something called the Waffle House Index -- and FEMA uses it as an important barometer after a major disaster like a hurricane.
Credit: Mark Wallheiser
Waitresses serve customers inside a Waffle House in Long Beach, Mississippi as Hurricane Nate approaches the northern Mississippi Gulf Coast October 7, 2017. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Editor's note: This story was originally published in September 2017 ahead of Hurricane Irma

In a time of natural disaster, the federal government uses a simple gauge to determine the toll Mother Nature has taken on a local area.

It's called the Waffle House Index, or test, which uses the operating conditions of the resilient Southern restaurants as a barometer for how well an area will recover from a hurricane, tornado or other hazard.

"The Waffle House test just doesn't tell us how quickly a business might rebound — it also tells how the larger community is faring," said a FEMA blog post from 2011, when Craig Fugate was administrator under former president Obama. "The sooner restaurants, grocery and corner stores, or banks can re-open, the sooner local economies will start generating revenue again — signaling a strong recovery for that community."

Fugate said the system "came out of the '04 hurricanes," when he was Florida's emergency management director. Here's how Fugate described the test on a 2016 episode of NPR's comedy podcast Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me:

"They are open most of the time. And that was the index. If a Waffle House is closed because there's a disaster, it's bad. We call it red. If they're open but have a limited menu, that's yellow," he said. "If they're green, we're good, keep going. You haven't found the bad stuff yet."

Waffle House holds the FEMA test as a point of pride. The company's goal is to reopen its stores as quickly as possible after a storm passes. The company claims getting back to business restores a sense of normalcy in affected areas. Before a storm hits, the store brings in extra supplies and has managers on standby to help. Most of the 1,900 Waffle Houses are located in the southeast United States, meaning the company is used to battling big storms.

Fugate stepped down in January 2017 and was replaced by Brock Long, but the Waffle House Index remains. In an email, a FEMA spokesperson stressed the index is an "unofficial metric."

Follow Sean Rossman on Twitter: @SeanRossman

TEGNA contributed to this report

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