FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has been sharing one of his more unique ways of determining how badly hit a community is after a disaster: He looks at Waffle House restaurants. If they’re closed after a storm or emergency, Fugate knows he needs to get to work.
“No matter how bad it was, the first thing that got open invariably was a Waffle House,” he told attendees at the International Disaster Conference and Expo on Jan. 17 in New Orleans.
And on Wednesday, Jan. 18, Waffle House CEO Walt Ehmer described how recovery is ingrained in the company. He said the culture of the company revolves around two words: Show up. Getting restaurants open as quickly as possible following an emergency not only gives Waffle House the competitive advantage, but it also allows employees to return to work and provides a sense of normalcy for residents who may not have had a hot meal in days.
Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, more than 100 Waffle House restaurants were closed. “It was something unlike we’d ever seen before,” Ehmer said. The company set up a command center and brought in supplies to reopen its locations. In areas where there wasn’t power, gas grills were used to cook food and boil water. Word spread that the company was on a mission to reopen its restaurants – while on their way to check on more locations following Hurricane Rita, company representatives entered Beaumont, Texas, where they were told, “We were expecting you.”
Ehmer shared lessons that the company has learned through the years:
- get momentum going quickly after a disaster;
- think of itself as locals in a community and get to know customers;
- prepare employees before a disaster happens with information like what to do during and after a storm; and
- do a better job of building relationships with government.
But with more than 1,600 restaurants in 25 states, working with government in advance isn’t always easy. Government rules like curfews in disaster-impacted areas can prevent companies from operating as efficiently as possible, and Ehmer reminded attendees that open businesses like restaurants not only benefit the public but also first responders who work round the clock following an emergency.
“The challenge is that every county, municipality and state has different people that we need to talk to,” Ehmer said. Building relationships across government and industry has been promoted more frequently, and examples range from FEMA hosting private-sector representatives in its coordination center to localities including industry organizations in their EOCs. With more partnerships and coordination, the nation will be better prepared to respond to a disaster.