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Waffle House index: How breakfast signals storm damage

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Zuma Press/Newscom/File

(Read caption) The Waffle House at the Southgate Shopping Center in Augusta, Ga., is pictured in this 2011 file photo. One way FEMA head Craig Fugate quickly determines the severity of storm damage is the 'Waffle House index.' The restaurant chain's disaster preparedness is so good that if a Waffle House isn't open, he knows the area needs emergency help.

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If you want to assess hurricane or earthquake damage, you can send out inspectors, pore over aerial photographs, and monitor emergency communications.

Or you can visit the local Waffle House.

The restaurants are one quick way W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, figures out the severity of a natural disaster. Using what's come to be known as the "Waffle House index," he checks to see if the restaurant is open in any given area.

If it is and serving a full menu, the index is green. That means there's water and power, he says, and area residents should be fairly well off. If the restaurant is open but serving a limited menu, the index is yellow. That means there's water but no power. If the restaurant is closed, the Waffle House index is red and there's no power or water .

"That's really bad," Mr. Fugate said in a 2009 keynote address (see video here). "That's where you go to work."

The index is a sign of experience for Fugate, who developed the technique when he headed Florida’s Department of Emergency Management, helping the state prepare and recover from multiple hurricanes during the mid-2000s.

But it's also a tribute to the disaster-preparedness practices of Waffle House, a 1,600-restaurant chain based in Norcross, Ga., which operates in 25 states and bills itself as the world's largest server of waffles.

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