Strange as it may seem, a chain of restaurants called Waffle House has staked out a position for itself as the gold standard for disaster preparedness. The company has been so effective, in fact, that federal emergency managers once coined the term “Waffle House Index” to judge the severity of local and regional disasters. Now that the entire nation is in the grip of the COVID-19 crisis, the Waffle House Index is more significant than ever — and it has begun flashing red. Unfortunately, no-one in the White House appears to have gotten the message.
The Waffle House Index emerged on the media's radar in 2011, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coined “Waffle House Index” in recognition of the company’s ability to re-open stores quickly in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Many businesses close permanently after a disaster, but Waffle House had developed an uncanny ability to survive.
There are many aspects to the Waffle House strategy, but one key aspect is a strong focus on communicating with employees, and working with their needs, capabilities, and resources.
Part of that strategy involves coordinating the resources of more than 2,000 Waffle House stores nationwide. For example, the company can pull in employees from unaffected areas, so that employees at a disaster location can tend to their own families as needed.
The ability to dial down operations to continue functioning on a shoestring is also part of the plan.
Every detail is accounted for and prepared in advance, down to bringing in portable toilets, fresh water and generators to help damaged stores keep functioning.
In 2012, FEMA articulated why it pays attention to the Waffle House Index, noting that “the Waffle House test doesn’t just tell us how quickly a business might rebound – it also tells us how the larger community is faring.”
Green means the situation is under control, with Waffle House stores operating on a full menu. Yellow means the community is stressed, and stores have cut down to a limited menu.
Red indicates that Waffle House has closed its stores and the community is in serious trouble. That means the disaster has moved beyond the capability of the company’s network of resources, alerting FEMA that local conditions are dire indeed.
And, that’s where COVID-19 comes in.
Waffle House stores are located in 25 different states, clustered mainly in the eastern U.S. with a heavier concentration in the south.
The company’s first experience with COVID-19 reportedly occurred on March 10, and that should have set off warning bells.
According to news reports, when a worker at a Georgia Waffle House tested positive for COVID-19, the company immediately closed the store for a four-day sanitation regimen.
No limited service, no sanitize-as-you-work.
Waffle House sent all of the employees home for self-quarantine, reportedly with pay for hours they would have worked during the four days that the store was closed for sanitation.
That was then.
In a Facebook post on March 24, Waffle House announced that it closed 365 locations, including many in states that had not yet issued stay-at-home orders.
To ensure that Facebook users got the message, Waffle House illustrated the post with a Google map showing all of its locations, open and closed.
A Google Maps image showing how the Waffle House Index works (courtesy Waffle House/Facebook)
One day later, on March 25, Waffle House closed another 53 stores, bringing the total of closures to 416 and leaving it with 1,573 open — and again providing a map to illustrate how widespread the closures are.
If that’s not flashing red, it’s hard to say what is.
Nevertheless, as the COVID-19 crisis spins out of control, the White House continues to dither over implementing the Defense Production Act, undercut the stay-at-home strategy, promote quack and unproven cures and even haggle over the cost of vital supplies.
Some people — millions of them, in fact — may have thought it was a good idea to elect a television personality to the highest office of the land.
It seems they have gotten what they wished for. Unfortunately, so did everybody else.
Image credit: Simon Daoudi/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.