An unofficial indicator of storm severity has gone CODE RED as Hurricane Ian barrels into southwest Florida at Category 4 strength.
At least 21 Waffle House locations in Florida have closed, the restaurant chain's public relations chief told news outlets Wednesday morning, representing the serious danger of catastrophic weather conditions Floridians face.
For the uninitiated, Waffle House is a popular food franchise with locations in 25 states, mostly in the South. The restaurant serves waffles, obviously, as well as hashbrowns and other diner fare cooked to order in an open kitchen in view of the customers. It's best known for being an all-night eatery, open 24 hours, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
So when Waffle House is closed, it's a big deal. Such a big deal that former Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate coined the term "Waffle House Index" to evaluate the effect of a storm and the need for disaster preparedness.
The index has three levels based on the extent of operations and services offered by Waffle House during inclement weather. GREEN means the restaurant has power and is offering a full menu. YELLOW means there is a limited menu and no power or only power from a generator, with food supplies running low. RED means the restaurant is closed, which indicates severe storm damage or dangerous flooding.
On Wednesday morning, more than a dozen locations were closed from Naples stretching north along the Gulf of Mexico coastline to Bradenton in Manatee County, USA Today reported.
"We do have closures in mandatory evacuation zones and areas within low-lying areas that are subject to severe flooding," Waffle House Vice President of Public Relations Njeri Boss said Wednesday morning.
Boss said the restaurant is working with local governments and emergency responders to evaluate whether to close Waffle House locations.
"We constantly track storms during hurricane season, following their progress when there is an indication they might make landfall or deliver significant storm conditions," she told USA Today.
FEMA also uses Waffle House operations, as well as companies like Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowe's to measure disaster recovery.
"Businesses in communities are often some of the biggest drivers of recovery. If stores can open, people can go back to work. If people can go back to work, they can return to at least one piece of a normal life — and that little piece of normalcy can make a big difference," FEMA wrote in a 2017 blog post.
"If a store like a Home Depot or a Lowe’s or your local hardware store can open, that means people can get the supplies they need in order to rebuild, to clean up the muck and progress along the path to recovery," the agency said.
Closed Waffle House restaurants mean Florida should brace for a devastating storm. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced at 1:54 p.m. that Hurricane Ian was making landfall and that the state was ready to respond.
"We have fleets of highwater vehicles, 42,000 linemen, 7,000 National Guardsmen and 179 aircraft prepared to help," the governor tweeted.
Images shared on social media show that flooding has begun in Ft. Myers, where storm surges are predicted to reach up to 16 feet along the coast.
More than 450,000 Florida customers have already lost power.