'Waffle House Index' for Storms Shows Superiority of Private Initiative v. Government Bureaucracy

P. Gardner Goldsmith | September 14, 2018
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As Hurricane Florence moves like a machine towards the Carolinas and southern Virginia, a great deal of attention will be given to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and, depending on whether the reporter or news organization likes the President or not, most of the attention will be focused on how well-prepared and heroic, or how ill-prepared and feckless, the agency is.

But there’s something else garnering attention when it comes to a big storm.

It’s spreading across the web and via word-of-mouth, and it’s a powerful reminder of a couple of important lessons one can learn during threats of natural disasters like this.

It’s called “The Waffle House Index” for storms, and it’s real -- the product of market incentives to profit and mitigate losses.

As far back as the early 2000s, the restaurant chain Waffle House acquired a reputation in storm areas as the place to watch. Its owners had developed rigid standards for remaining open as long as they could to provide food for people, and closing when storms were just too bad to take. They established redundancies and supply chains to make sure they could still serve up those famous eggs (and myriad other delights) and stay functional as long as possible.

There was a profit to be found, and a reputation to be made which was not only important for staff and regular customers, but also had the recursive effect of inspiring more trust and more business.

As Zuri Davis reports for Reason:

The "Waffle House Index" has become a key part of storm preparedness: When a Waffle House closes in the face of an impending storm, that's when you really need to be worried.

He also notes something rather telling. The Waffle House Index is a real thing. It’s a color code that Waffle House created to warn members of the chain about the size and danger of storms, and it preexisted FEMA’s own color code. In fact, FEMA adopted the Waffle House template.

During 2004's Hurricane Charley, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established the color-coordinated Waffle House index: green for operating, yellow for affected, red for destroyed. Disaster responders still use this index to this day.

As we mentioned, Waffle House has profound incentives to get it right.

FEMA does not.

Waffle house has liabilities and profit and loss incentives. Waffle House can go out of business if people are not served, in myriad regards, under all kinds of conditions. FEMA will get more tax cash if it fails.

Waffle house can’t send you to jail if you don’t pay.

The government? Try not paying and see what happens. We all know how the government stays in operation.

Add to that the brutal examples of federal bureaucrats getting into New Orleans long after private charity from companies like Wal Mart arrived, FEMA blocking more private aid from getting into the city, the government seizing firearms during Katrina, contrary to the clear commands of the Bill of Rights, and brand new accusations of FEMA malfeasance and mistakes, and one has reason to look with even more admiration at private initiatives to decrease risk during natural disasters.

The private market and private charity show what people value.

FEMA shows what the state values and it can only take in order to "help".

Private initiative versus government force. Once more, we see that the two are not the same, and never can be.

Well done Waffle House. Best of luck to you and your neighbors during this and all future natural troubles.