Thursday, September 22, 2011

FEMA’s ‘Waffle House Index’ for disaster assessment

Waffle House Emergency Mobile Center
in NC following Hurricane Irene
I’ve previously written at length about the pervasive cultural role of Waffle House in the American South, and my own conflicted enchantment with that mighty purveyor of hash browns.

It turns out that I’m not the only one who thinks Waffle House represents a lot more than cheap hot food, at any hour.

W. Craig Fugate, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, uses a ‘Waffle House Index’ as an informal tool for assessing the status and severity of natural disasters, according to Valerie Bauerlein of the Wall Street Journal.
“If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That's really bad. That's where you go to work.” - FEMA Director Craig Fugate. 
Fugate explains the Index in this video:

If a Waffle House store is open and offering a full menu, the index is green. If it is open but serving from a special limited menu, it’s yellow. When the location has been forced to close, the index is red.

While this seems simplistic, closer examination reveals that observers can rapidly infer facts about the larger community, based on the extent of operations and service at the local Waffle House franchise.

If a Waffle House restaurant is open, it means they have power and water. By implication the same is likely true for the surrounding neighbourhood, and emergency responders can adjust their actions accordingly.

Waffle House Limited menu,
used during disasters
If the Waffle House can only serve from their limited menu, it means that their freezer went out -- that indicates power has been out long enough to disrupt the freezer and spoil any refrigerated foods. Yet power is now available, possibly from a generator. This suggests that the local area may have issues with the food supply.

And if the restaurant is closed -- that’s a telling clue to the severity of the situation. Food and water are critical for afflicted citizens, as well as emergency responders. If the restaurant is unable to provide the basics to stay open, this implies significant disruption -- to employees, to food supplies, to power and water distribution capabilities.

A reputation for disaster preparedness
Waffle House has developed a reputation in Southern communities for staying open through thick and thin. The chain completely revamped its crisis management processes and planning following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when seven of its restaurants were destroyed, and about 100 were temporarily shut down. The chain discovered that the franchises which re-opened quickly were mobbed by customers. 

Panos Kouvelis, Professor of Operations and Manufacturing Management at Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis, has published research that identified Waffle House as one of four organizations worth studying for their supply chain resiliency and effective response times (Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart were the other three).

Kouvelis comments that geography and weather have prompted the chain to treat disaster recovery as a priority rather than an afterthought.
“These companies have many stores in the southern part of the United States that are frequently exposed to hurricanes. They have good risk management plans in place and are great examples of how their supply chains get affected in two different ways. On the one hand, your own supply chain is exposed. At the same time, your stores are supposed to be the first to react and provide the basic supplies. Your supply goes down, while your demand goes up.”
Waffle House stands at the end point of a complex and extended supply chain. Maintaining ongoing operations involves the logistical coordination of suppliers, distributors, other vendors, and employees. By taking a systematic and methodical approach to mitigating vulnerabilities -- even developing a ‘hurricane playbook’ to coach operators through recovery steps for getting a restaurant going in the face of upheaval -- the chain has turned their investment into a robust competitive advantage.

In Joplin Missouri, a devastating EF5 class multiple-vortex tornado struck in 2011 and flattened significant portions of the city. Nevertheless, the two Waffle House restaurants in Joplin remained open, providing comfort and assistance to citizens in the aftermath. In this case you might argue that the Waffle House Index was misleading!
“Nothing good can come from a closed Waffle House after a hurricane—not for us, not for the community, not for the associates.” - former Waffle House Restaurants CEO, Bert Thornton
Although sales volumes can easily double or triple after a disaster, the chain claims its strategy is about fostering goodwill rather than profits.

I hope this post has given you some food for thought!

Further reading
Waffle House’s crisis management processes are outlined in this case study by Özlem Ergun, Jessica L. Heier Stamm, Pinar Keskinocak, and Julie L. Swann of Georgia Tech.

See also: the Colbert Report on the Waffle House Index

More from me on Waffle House
Why I love Waffle House -- a personal reflection
Waffle House tattoo -- now that’s commitment!