Weighing Catastrophe With Waffles

Bob Crossen, managing editor for Water & Wastes Digest.

Floodwaters have receded in Houston after Hurricane Harvey battered the Texas coast, and the assessment period has begun. For some plants, such as Deer Park Water Treatment Plant and City of Texas City, damage was minimal and quickly evaluated. But for cities such as Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas, damages still are being uncovered, as water was finally trickling to the communities three weeks after the storm hit.

Before those assessments were made, however, news about an unofficial evaluation measure came to light. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) uses local business chain closures to determine the extent of damage from natural disasters. It affectionately calls this method the Waffle House Index.

While it is not an official determination of damage, FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate, who coined the term, said it shines a light on how catastrophic an event is. “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad. That’s when you go to work,” Fugate said in a 2011 interview with the Wall Street Journal.

FEMA referenced Fugate’s Waffle House test in a July 2011 article, citing several business chains—notably The Home Depot, Walmart and Waffle House—that are role models for disaster preparedness. “These companies have good risk-management plans to ensure that their stores continue to operate when a disaster strikes and also provide basic supplies to people in their community,” wrote Dan Stoneking.

In Houston, three Waffle House locations closed following Hurricane Harvey, suggesting ruinous damage in some areas. Now that water has receded and real assessments can begin, the extent of the damage is becoming more clear, particularly with regard to residential homes that were destroyed by high winds and floodwaters.

In fact, FEMA has earmarked $1.09 billion for individual federal disaster aid for homeowners in the Houston area. Meanwhile, $181 million is up for grabs for state and local agency reimbursement for cleanup and repairs. The biggest question is how much will be allocated for infrastructure repair and replacement, and how those dollars will compete against the needed disaster aid in Florida following Hurricane Irma, which followed Harvey’s path.

As of Sept. 20, Irma’s damages also were great. Walt Disney World closed its resort—for only the sixth time ever—while the storm lashed the peninsula. Additionally, 157 Waffle Houses closed. If the Waffle House Index is to be believed, Florida will need even more support in the coming months to recover from Irma’s damages.

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About the author

Bob Crossen | Managing Editor | [email protected]