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Sept. 29, 2022, 11:00 a.m. EDT

When Waffle House closed 21 Florida stores for Hurricane Ian, locals knew it was ‘time to panic’

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By Nicole Lyn Pesce

Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida on Wednesday as a Category 4 storm , leaving about 2 million people without power and causing catastrophic flooding across the state. Both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm, and residents in Ian’s path were urged to evacuate as more than 1 million homes were estimated to be at risk of damage from the hurricane-force winds, storm surge and heavy rainfall. 

But locals already knew things were going to be really serious, because several Waffle Houses closed ahead of the storm. Njeri Boss, vice president of public relations at Waffle House, told MarketWatch over email that 21 Waffle House locations were closed across Florida on Wednesday because they were in the direct path of the storm, with a few located in low-lying, flood-prone areas.

“We continue to monitor weather conditions, work closely with local government officials, emergency management teams and our local leadership in the field to make appropriate decisions based on the circumstances in each location,” Boss added.

The news stirred up a Twitter storm, leading “Waffle House” to rank among the top Twitter trends on Wednesday, along with “Florida” and “Hurricane Ian.”

That’s because the restaurant chain is renowned for dishing diner-style breakfast fare 24/7, 365 days a year — and is generally considered well-equipped for natural disasters. In fact, former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Craig Fugate, who once ran Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, famously coined the term “Waffle House Index” to determine the severity of storms.  And this is due to the fact that Waffle House rarely closes.

The informal Waffle House Index states: 

  • If a Waffle House is open and serving a full menu, storm damage is likely minimal, and the index is green. 

  • If a Waffle House is open but dishing a limited menu, the area is probably suffering issues like power outages or no running water, and the index is yellow. 

  • If a Waffle House location is forced to close, the index is red, meaning the area was severely hit and struggling to recover.

And many people identifying as Floridians or Southerners on Twitter would agree. “People who are not from here and don’t know about the [Waffle House] Index don’t know how serious of a ‘oh f—‘ this is,” tweeted one .

“You know what they say: Florida doesn’t start panicking about hurricanes until the Waffle House closes,” tweeted Washington Post op-ed writer Holly Figueroa O’Reilly.

Boss also told MarketWatch that the Waffle House Index “doesn’t really belong to us,” adding that it was created by FEMA’s former director “as a simple to way to help FEMA workers to assess the damage to a community AFTER a hurricane hits and it is safe to return to the area.”

And Boss noted that people shouldn’t refer to any “Waffle House Index” for directions on what to do ahead of an approaching storm. “We would hope that residents heed the warnings of their local government officials and take the necessary precautions to stay safe,” said Boss.

Still, plenty on Twitter turned to comic relief for some levity in the face of the strengthening storm by sharing memes and jokes about the ominous significance of more than 20 Waffle House restaurants closing their doors.

Here’s a sampling of some of those tweets. Some contain strong language. 

Even former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tweeted Wednesday that, “When Waffle House closes a location, a storm is catastrophic.” 

All Waffle House jokes aside, the situation is grave. About 2.5 million people were ordered to evacuate southwest Florida before Hurricane Ian hit the coast Wednesday with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph. It was heading inland, where it was expected to weaken, but residents in central Florida could still experience hurricane-force winds.

Read more about Hurricane Ian and its potential impact elsewhere on MarketWatch:

1 million homes in Florida are at risk of storm damage because of Hurricane Ian

U.S. oil prices climb back above $80 as Hurricane Ian forces production cuts

Hurricane Ian nears a severe Category 5 ranking. Here are the categories explained .

Late-hitting Ian keeps expensive and high-risk hurricane season on track, fueled by climate change

5 reasons retirement favorite Tampa is increasingly at risk from hurricanes and climate-change impact

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