ATLANTA – While Waffle House announced it was closing its locations along Interstate 95 between Titusville and Fort Pierce, Florida in advance of Hurricane Matthew made a lot of sense, given the catastrophic weather conditions, the general idea was very significant overall.

More than ten years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) realized that an ever-present element along each highway throughout the southern part of the United States is Waffle House.

From a single diner in the Atlanta suburb of Avondale Estates, Georgia, the iconic yellow signs began to spread across the nation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, first across Georgia, then across much of the rest of the southern United States.

The chain now has more than 2,100 locations across 25 states. One of the Waffle House hallmarks is that the chain’s locations are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – which led to the urban myth that Waffle House locations have no locks.

FEMA officials noted that after storms that paralyzed areas, that Waffle House locations either remained open, or were the first locations to reopen – simply because they were able to provide food, warmth and comfort for people.

In 2012, FEMA Director Craig Fugate told USA Today that he can judge the severity of a disaster by the state of the local Waffle House, and counts that information as an essential part of his disaster management strategy.

"Businesses are full, and essential, partners on the emergency-management team," Fugate said.

After the devastating 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado, Fugate came up with what is termed the “Waffle House Index,” which has three color-coded levels tied to the extent of operations and service at the local Waffle House location after a storm.

  • “Green” is based on the location serving its full menu, indicating the location has full power and limited damage.
  • “Yellow” is based on the location serving a limited menu, which means there may be limited power from a generator, or no power; or there may be low supplies of food.
  • “Red” means the restaurant is closed, indicating severe damage.

Fugate and others who study disaster response point out that Waffle House, Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart all have stores in the southern United States, and each have developed significant disaster plans tied to severe weather events, like tornadoes and hurricanes, which allow them to assess their risk and resources, based upon those events.

Each company has been able to leverage and marshal those resources in order to best prepare for those types of events in order to get back up and running in order to best serve their local communities as rapidly as possible after a catastrophic event.