The Waffle House Index is not a scientific indicator, and not the only one used by the agency, but it does give FEMA an estimate of whether an area has electricity, gas, and passable roads. The index tracks the affected ares with the restaurant chain's ability to reopen after the disaster.
FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate created the index during his tenure as Florida’s emergency management chief when he noticed that when information from disaster-hit areas was scarce, Waffle House locations in the area often indicated the situation on the ground.
He devised a three-color rating system linking the situation in an area with the status of Waffle Houses there: green (fully open), yellow (limited menu), and red (closed). While the index was not very helpful during the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, its accuracy is being improved.
But why use the Waffle House?
The chain has 500 locations across the hurricane zones on the Eastern Seaboard and along the Gulf Coast. The company has also been an industry leader in disaster preparedness, with its own fleet of portable generators and a mobile command center.
Last year, Waffle House began using tropical-storm-tracking software to help it predict -- down to the minute -- when any Waffle House will be affected and when it’s safe to reopen. This allows the chain to pass its operational status to FEMA immediately.
“There’s been a real shift in the last few years toward the private sector and public sector working together to get communities back up on their feet after a storm,” said Waffle House vice president of culture Pat Warner.