How Bad Is Harvey? The Waffle Houses Are Closing

The breakfast chain takes its commitment to staying open so seriously that FEMA uses closures to determine how severe a disaster is.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen August 28, 2017

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The Waffle House goes to great lengths to be open and serving hot food when disaster strikes.

Image: Shutterstock

When it comes to emergency services available in the wake of a natural disaster, waffles aren't the first thing to come to mind. But maybe they should be. After all, anyone who has been evacuated from their home or dealt with extended power outages knows how important a hot, affordable, delicious meal is when the rest of your life is going sideways.

Today we learned via Eater that Waffle House takes its commitment to staying open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year quite seriously. So seriously, in fact, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) uses Waffle House closures as an informal metric to determine how severe a disaster is. Eater notes that four Waffle House locations in the greater Houston area—in Rosenberg, Humble, Beaumont and in Houston near Bush Intercontinental Airport—are currently closed. That's the kind of thing that only happens during a 500-year storm.

FEMA's Waffle House Index actually has three tiers of availability, as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2011.

"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.

"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."

The quartet of closure across a huge swath of the Gulf Coast region just shows how wide-ranging and destructive this storm has been. However, those numbers are still (so far) much, much smaller than in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when four restaurants were destroyed and over 100 temporarily shut down. Even better news? There are 27 Waffle Houses in the Houston metropolitan area that are still open and ready to serve. 

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