When Waffle House surrenders to a hurricane, you know it’s bad

A Waffle House restaurant
A Waffle House restaurant

Forget the loop scenario or the Fujiwhara Effect. The grimmest news yet about Hurricane Matthew: The Waffle House Index, the key measure of the relative disastrousness of an American natural catastrophe, began flashing bright red Wednesday afternoon when the company announced that it’s closing all its restaurants along Interstate 95 between Titusville and Fort Pierce.

“GOD IN HEAVEN THIS IS THE END!!!!!!!!!” wept one horrified tweeter on Twitter.

That might be, ever so slightly, an exaggeration, but the Waffle House Index is a real thing, even if its origins are slightly whimsical. In the early days of the Obama administration, when Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate was asked how FEMA decides to set up shop after a disaster, he cracked:

“If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”

Since then, the Waffle House Index has been codified with colors. Green: Waffle House is serving a full menu and electricity is on. Yellow: a limited menu, implying low food supplies and possibly the necessity of using generators. Red: Waffle House has closed, and life as we once knew it has been reduced to chaos and entropy.

Lest you suspect that this is all the product of a twisted sense of humor at FEMA, business school professors have written entire papers on Waffle House’s disaster-response procedures. The Atlanta-based company, which operates about 1,500 round-the-clock restaurants and claims to have served nearly 900 million waffles since opening its first in 1955, has a post-hurricane handbook that explains what to serve depending on the scenario (gas but no electricity, generator but no ice).

It even has a mobile command center for disasters, an RV known as the EM-50, named after the cannon-firing, flame-throwing, rocket-blasting motorhome that was the secret weapon in the old Bill Murray movie “Stripes.” (Though the Waffle House version can’t do any of that stuff, luckily for Denny’s.)

With all that to deploy, it’s not surprising that Waffle House planned to ride out Hurricane Matthew. “We’re a 24-hour restaurant, so oddly enough shutting down is a big deal for us,” Waffle House’s Vice President of Culture Pat Warner told Fox News Wednesday. On Thursday, Matthew had the last laugh, and waffle darkness descended across Central Florida’s Atlantic coast.