FEMA's Waffle House Index

Working Like Waffle House

FEMA gauges disaster severity by how many Waffle House restaurants are open.
By: | November 1, 2013

The category EF5 tornado that tore through Moore, Okla., on May 20 etched a 17-mile path of destruction through thousands of homes and businesses, three schools and one hospital.

Estimates of insured losses reached $2 billion in the first 24 hours after the disaster, topping the cost of the twister that ravaged Joplin, Mo., in 2011. Sitting about three-quarters of a mile south of the tornado’s path, near 19th Street and Tower Drive, sat the local Waffle House.

“It was down without power, and the town was just devastated,” said Waffle House Vice President of Culture Pat Warner. “A normal 20-minute drive to work took about three hours to get around all the debris and roadblocks.”

Employees of the restaurant, however, were undeterred. Warner said the workers convinced a sheriff’s deputy to let them into the limited-access area in order to “get the restaurant open for our customers.”


“If you have a storm and you can get a restaurant operational quickly that can provide water and food, that’s a really good thing because otherwise people go hungry,” said Ted Devine, CEO of insureon, a small business insurance provider.

Though its power was knocked out, Moore’s Waffle House sustained no physical damage. It procured a backup generator and was serving up hot meals to neighbors and relief workers within two days after the tornado hit.

But quick recovery is nothing new for the popular breakfast destination.

Waffle House spokeswoman Kelly Thrasher said that Hurricane Katrina in 2005 forced 100 restaurants to close, and 60 were able to reopen within one day.

R11-13p72-74_11Waffle.indd” … If you don’t have a plan and know exactly what you’re going to do when the event happens, you’re [in trouble].”
— Ted Devine, CEO, insureon


In 2011, restaurants affected by deadly tornadoes in Alabama and Missouri and by Hurricane Irene along the Southeast coastal region saw similarly speedy recoveries, she said. Waffle House’s ability to get up and running so quickly in the wake of disaster has earned it a stellar crisis management reputation.

So much so that the “Waffle House Index” has become a mainstay in the damage analysis toolbox of FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.

The Waffle House Index — seeing if the local Waffle House is open and fully operational — is the informal way Fugate measures a community’s post-disaster damage and potential speed of recovery. A closed restaurant is coded red; an open restaurant serving a limited menu is yellow, and an open establishment with a full menu is green.

Fugate hatched the idea of the Index while surveying tornado damage in 2011: “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work,” he said.

Panos Kouvelis, an Olin Business School professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert in supply chain management, said Waffle House is one of several “world-class examples in their disaster management and humanitarian response planning approaches.”

His academic paper, “The ‘Waffle House’ Emergency Level Index,” detailed the challenges faced by businesses, including Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and Home Depot, that provide key services to a recovering community.

“Predicting customer demand after a disaster event, providing product required to the affected stores in an accurate and timely manner, establishing appropriate and ethical prices for their products, and maintaining adequate work-force levels after the event” are all part of an ironclad recovery plan.

Waffle House knows its customer demand will be high when scores of homes lose power to keep and cook food. Their employees’ commitment to serve those customers helps take care of the rest.

“We’ve been a 24-hour restaurant since 1955. We’re open on the holidays, on weekends and nights. So for us to close down is kind of against what we do.”
— Pat Warner, vice president of culture, Waffle House

The Waffle House Way

“[Our associates] know that their neighbors are going to be hungry, and opening the restaurant is their way to pitch in and get the community back on its feet,” Warner said. In addition to employee altruism, he credited the company’s dedication to quick recovery to its history as an around-the-clock restaurant.

“We’ve been a 24-hour restaurant since 1955. We’re open on the holidays, on weekends and nights,” he said. “So for us to close down is kind of against what we do. And our folks who run the restaurants really know that because they see their customers every day, and we’re fortunate enough to have regulars who come in sometimes more than once a day.”


Even associates from restaurants hundreds of miles outside of affected areas have been known call the corporate office offering to send relief workers. Warner said the company takes on crisis recovery with a “family approach.”

But if employees’ desire to pitch in and restore their community is like the gas that fuels a car, executive leadership and proactive planning are the steering wheel and tires.

Waffle House has no dedicated response team; the executive vice president of a region where a store has been hit heads up recovery, according to Warner, by overseeing delivery of emergency supplies and determining the availability of workers in the area.

Dedicated teams lend support from corporate headquarters in Norcross, Ga., sending in construction teams and a mobile communications RV, which keeps workers in the field connected to a “situation room” back at the office. At the end of the day, though, “the folks in the field are the ones calling the shots,” Warner said.

Though they reach as far west as Phoenix and as far north as towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Waffle House’s nearly 1,700 restaurants are clustered heavily in the Southeast. They are, therefore, particularly susceptible to hurricane damage.

“We spend a lot of time with our suppliers in the off-season to ensure that they are ready when a hurricane hits,” Warner said. “Typically, they’ll have trucks loaded and ready to roll in right after the storm. That’s a key part of it, getting that safe food supply in because you really don’t know what you’ll have after the storm that’s local, and we wind up having to purge a lot of food.”

What Kouvelis dubbed as the gold standard of disaster response, then, seems to have no secret weapon. There is no superstar risk manager at the helm, no hidden stashes of backup generators or fresh water and supplies, nothing to incentivize employees’ swift actions other than the satisfaction of helping their hometown. The key to excellent crisis management is nothing more than swift execution of a simple but well-laid plan.

Planning Ahead

Devine of insureon compares this to athletes knowing how to react in different game situations.

“I coach hockey,” he said. “When the puck’s going 90 miles per hour and a 200-pound human being is skating at you at 20 miles per hour hitting you into the boards, if you don’t have a plan and know exactly what you’re going to do when the event happens, you’re [in trouble].”

Getting operational quickly happens when plans are executed immediately, not when plans are just  made when an event demands it.

Documenting and outlining all possible risks and exposures should be top priority for risk managers, Devine said. That lays the groundwork for developing a plan of action.

“That means thinking through your insurance covers and making sure you have all the business interruption and contingent business interruption policies in place, both for yourself and your supply chain,” he said.

Then come the non-insurance-related courses of action. How will employees be contacted? How will customers be notified of the business’s status? Where will backup supplies like a generator come from? Has the facility been weather-proofed? How will the IT platform be managed? Having the pieces aligned brings the puzzle together much more quickly when the worst happens, he said.

David Cox, president of Arby’s supply chain co-op ARCOP, said risk can be mitigated by considering the proximity of suppliers and distributors. When an event knocks out a link in the chain, a backup plan should be quick and easy to set in motion.

“Some of our distributors have three or four distribution centers, so it would be easy for them to figure out a plan to get product to those stores that are serviced out of a damaged center,” Cox said. “Where we have single distribution centers, there are competing centers close enough that would pick up the slack.”

Restaurant owners and risk managers should also list key items that make up a good chunk of their menu and have two suppliers for each of those ingredients or products. Especially in a disaster, knowing where to get water and ice is crucial.

According to Cox, Arby’s will have refrigerated trucks packed with product situated just outside of forecasted storm areas, waiting to move in when the hurricane passes. If electricity is down, they will station those trucks in the restaurant parking lot so workers can continually withdraw fresh food until their own freezers get power again.

Some of these preparatory steps only apply, though, in the case of hurricanes.


Weather forecasters can predict with a high degree of accuracy when and where a hurricane will make landfall, what path it will take and how intense the winds and rain will be. That gives businesses time to prepare their facilities and contact their suppliers.

Tornadoes are a different story. The current average lead-time for tornado warnings is 13 minutes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Barely enough time to take cover, let alone call for backup.

Tornado recovery is inherently reactionary, but the upside is that twisters cause damage on a much smaller scale than hurricanes, allowing for greater focus of resources. It also means more people are available to help, without their own devastation to deal with.

Some companies rely on simple, good-willed help more than others.

Devine’s clients, for example, are small businesses with tighter budgets and limited resources. They depend entirely on local support and loyalty to thrive.

“If the small businesses can get operational quickly, they can actually make the community a better place more quickly,” he said. When nearly 40 percent of small businesses fail to reopen after a disaster, however, that’s a formidable challenge.

With more than 1,000 locations, Waffle House is hardly small. But the warm atmosphere of Southern hospitality each outpost strives to create may make it feel like it is.

As the Waffle House Index evinces, the restaurant chain has certainly carved itself a niche as a community mainstay, fitting into the unique fabric of each town it serves. Perhaps it’s that combination of big business leadership and resources, and small business customer and employee loyalty that makes its recovery efforts so effective.

“As a company we’re very flattered by the Waffle House Index,” Warner said. “It shows that our hard work is being noticed. When the emergency response people are looking to you, you know you’re doing something right.”

Katie Dwyer is a freelance editor and writer based out of Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Scenario

The Betrayal of Elizabeth

In this Risk Scenario, Risk & Insurance explores what might happen in the event a telemedicine or similar home health visit violates a patient's privacy. What consequences await when a young girl's tele visit goes viral?
By: | October 12, 2020
Risk Scenarios are created by Risk & Insurance editors along with leading industry partners. The hypothetical, yet realistic stories, showcase emerging risks that can result in significant losses if not properly addressed.

Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.


Elizabeth Cunningham seemingly had it all. The daughter of two well-established professionals — her father was a personal injury attorney, her mother, also an attorney, had her own estate planning practice — she grew up in a house in Maryland horse country with lots of love and the financial security that can iron out at least some of life’s problems.

Tall, good-looking and talented, Elizabeth was moving through her junior year at the University of Pennsylvania in seemingly good order; check that, very good order, by all appearances.

Her pre-med grades were outstanding. Despite the heavy load of her course work, she’d even managed to place in the Penn Relays in the mile, in the spring of her sophomore season, in May of 2019.

But the winter of 2019/2020 brought challenges, challenges that festered below the surface, known only to her and a couple of close friends.

First came betrayal at the hands of her boyfriend, Tom, right around Thanksgiving. She saw a message pop up on his phone from Rebecca, a young woman she thought was their friend. As it turned out, Rebecca and Tom had been intimate together, and both seemed game to do it again.

Reeling, her holiday mood shattered and her relationship with Tom fractured, Elizabeth was beset by deep feelings of anxiety. As the winter gray became more dense and forbidding, the anxiety grew.

Fed up, she broke up with Tom just after Christmas. What looked like a promising start to 2020 now didn’t feel as joyous.

Right around the end of the year, she plucked a copy of her father’s New York Times from the table in his study. A budding physician, her eyes were drawn to a piece about an outbreak of a highly contagious virus in Wuhan, China.

“Sounds dreadful,” she said to herself.

Within three months, anxiety gnawed at Elizabeth daily as she sat cloistered in her family’s house in Bel Air, Maryland.

It didn’t help matters that her brother, Billy, a high school senior and a constant thorn in her side, was cloistered with her.

She felt like she was suffocating.

One night in early May, feeling shutdown and unable to bring herself to tell her parents about her true condition, Elizabeth reached out to her family physician for help.

Dr. Johnson had been Elizabeth’s doctor for a number of years and, being from a small town, Elizabeth had grown up and gone to school with Dr. Johnson’s son Evan. In fact, back in high school, Evan had asked Elizabeth out once. Not interested, Elizabeth had declined Evan’s advances and did not give this a second thought.

Dr. Johnson’s practice had recently been acquired by a Virginia-based hospital system, Medwell, so when Elizabeth called the office, she was first patched through to Medwell’s receptionist/scheduling service. Within 30 minutes, an online Telehealth consult had been arranged for her to speak directly with Dr. Johnson.

Due to the pandemic, Dr. Johnson called from the office in her home. The doctor was kind. She was practiced.

“So can you tell me what’s going on?” she said.

Elizabeth took a deep breath. She tried to fight what was happening. But she could not. Tears started streaming down her face.

“It’s just… It’s just…” she managed to stammer.

The doctor waited patiently. “It’s okay,” she said. “Just take your time.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath. “It’s like I can’t manage my own mind anymore. It’s nonstop. It won’t turn off…”

More tears streamed down her face.

Patiently, with compassion, the doctor walked Elizabeth through what she might be experiencing. The doctor recommended a follow-up with Medwell’s psychology department.

“Okay,” Elizabeth said, some semblance of relief passing through her.

Unbeknownst to Dr. Johnson, her office door had not been completely closed. During the telehealth call, Evan stopped by his mother’s office to ask her a question. Before knocking he overheard Elizabeth talking and decided to listen in.


As Elizabeth was finding the courage to open up to Dr. Johnson about her psychological condition, Evan was recording her with his smartphone through a crack in the doorway.

Spurred by who knows what — his attraction to her, his irritation at being rejected, the idleness of the COVID quarantine — it really didn’t matter. Evan posted his recording of Elizabeth to his Instagram feed.

#CantManageMyMind, #CrazyGirl, #HelpMeDoctorImBeautiful is just some of what followed.

Elizabeth and Evan were both well-liked and very well connected on social media. The posts, shares and reactions that followed Evan’s digital betrayal numbered in the hundreds. Each one of them a knife into the already troubled soul of Elizabeth Cunningham.

By noon of the following day, her well-connected father unleashed the dogs of war.

Rand Davis, the risk manager for the Medwell Health System, a 15-hospital health care company based in Alexandria, Virginia was just finishing lunch when he got a call from the company’s general counsel, Emily Vittorio.

“Yes?” Rand said. He and Emily were accustomed to being quick and blunt with each other. They didn’t have time for much else.

“I just picked up a notice of intent to sue from a personal injury attorney in Bel Air, Maryland. It seems his daughter was in a teleconference with one of our docs. She was experiencing anxiety, the daughter that is. The doctor’s son recorded the call and posted it to social media.”

“Great. Thanks, kid,” Rand said.

“His attorneys want to initiate a discovery dialogue on Monday,” Emily said.

It was Thursday. Rand’s dreams of slipping onto his fishing boat over the weekend evaporated, just like that. He closed his eyes and tilted his face up to the heavens.

Wasn’t it enough that he and the other members of the C-suite fought tooth and nail to keep thousands of people safe and treat them during the COVID-crisis?

He’d watched the explosion in the use of telemedicine with a mixture of awe and alarm. On the one hand, they were saving lives. On the other hand, they were opening themselves to exposures under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. He just knew it.

He and his colleagues tried to do the right thing. But what they were doing, overwhelmed as they were, was simply not enough.


Within the space of two weeks, the torture suffered by Elizabeth Cunningham grew into a class action against Medwell.

In addition to the violation of her privacy, the investigation by Mr. Cunningham’s attorneys revealed the following:

Medwell’s telemedicine component, as needed and well-intended as it was, lacked a viable informed consent protocol.

The consultation with Elizabeth, and as it turned out, hundreds of additional patients in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, violated telemedicine regulations in all three states.

Numerous practitioners in the system took part in teleconferences with patients in states in which they were not credentialed to provide that service.

Even if Evan hadn’t cracked open Dr. Johnson’s door and surreptitiously recorded her conversation with Elizabeth, the Medwell telehealth system was found to be insecure — yet another violation of HIPAA.

The amount sought in the class action was $100 million. In an era of social inflation, with jury awards that were once unthinkable becoming commonplace, Medwell was standing squarely in the crosshairs of a liability jury decision that was going to devour entire towers of its insurance program.

Adding another layer of certain pain to the equation was that the case would be heard in Baltimore, a jurisdiction where plaintiffs’ attorneys tended to dance out of courtrooms with millions in their pockets.

That fall, Rand sat with his broker on a call with a specialty insurer, talking about renewals of the group’s general liability, cyber and professional liability programs.

“Yeah, we were kind of hoping to keep the increases on all three at less than 25%,” the broker said breezily.

There was a long silence from the underwriters at the other end of the phone.

“To be honest, we’re borderline about being able to offer you any cover at all,” one of the lead underwriters said.

Rand just sat silently and waited for another shoe to drop.

“Well, what can you do?” the broker said, with hope draining from his voice.

The conversation that followed would propel Rand and his broker on the difficult, next to impossible path of trying to find coverage, with general liability underwriters in full retreat, professional liability underwriters looking for double digit increases and cyber underwriters asking very pointed questions about the health system’s risk management.

Elizabeth, a strong young woman with a good support network, would eventually recover from the damage done to her.

Medwell’s relationships with the insurance markets looked like it almost never would. &


Risk & Insurance® partnered with Allied World to produce this scenario. Below are Allied World’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. This perspective is not an editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance.®.

The use of telehealth has exponentially accelerated with the advent of COVID-19. Few health care providers were prepared for this shift. Health care organizations should confirm that Telehealth coverage is included in their Medical Professional, General Liability and Cyber policies, and to what extent. Concerns around Telehealth focus on HIPAA compliance and the internal policies in place to meet the federal and state standards and best practices for privacy and quality care. As states open businesses and the crisis abates, will pre-COVID-19 telehealth policies and regulations once again be enforced?

Risk Management Considerations:

The same ethical and standard of care issues around caring for patients face-to-face in an office apply in telehealth settings:

  • maintain a strong patient-physician relationship;
  • protect patient privacy; and
  • seek the best possible outcome.

Telehealth can create challenges around “informed consent.” It is critical to inform patients of the potential benefits and risks of telehealth (including privacy and security), ensure the use of HIPAA compliant platforms and make sure there is a good level of understanding of the scope of telehealth. Providers must be aware of the regulatory and licensure requirements in the state where the patient is located, as well as those of the state in which they are licensed.

A professional and private environment should be maintained for patient privacy and confidentiality. Best practices must be in place and followed. Medical professionals who engage in telehealth should be fully trained in operating the technology. Patients must also be instructed in its use and provided instructions on what to do if there are technical difficulties.

This case study is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended to be a summary of, and does not in any way vary, the actual coverage available to a policyholder under any insurance policy. Actual coverage for specific claims will be determined by the actual policy language and will be based on the specific facts and circumstances of the claim. Consult your insurance advisors or legal counsel for guidance on your organization’s policies and coverage matters and other issues specific to your organization.

This information is provided as a general overview for agents and brokers. Coverage will be underwritten by an insurance subsidiary of Allied World Assurance Company Holdings, Ltd, a Fairfax company (“Allied World”). Such subsidiaries currently carry an A.M. Best rating of “A” (Excellent), a Moody’s rating of “A3” (Good) and a Standard & Poor’s rating of “A-” (Strong), as applicable. Coverage is offered only through licensed agents and brokers. Actual coverage may vary and is subject to policy language as issued. Coverage may not be available in all jurisdictions. Risk management services are provided or arranged through AWAC Services Company, a member company of Allied World. © 2020 Allied World Assurance Company Holdings, Ltd. All rights reserved.

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]