Texas passes Waffle House test, but far from OK

Published 8:29 am Saturday, September 9, 2017

On a 2016 forecast of NPR’s Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me, former FEMA director Craig Fugate described the agency’s Waffle House test.

“They are open most of the time. And that was the index. If a Waffle House is closed because there’s a disaster, it’s bad. We call it red. If they’re open but have a limited menu, that’s yellow,” he said. “If they’re green, we’re good, keep going. You haven’t found the bad stuff yet.”

Life placed me in Port Arthur, Texas, this week, where flooding in the wake of Harvey included the newspaper office, now gutted. Lots of people at The Star-News worked extra hard this week while I helped out here.

And as luck would have it, there was an upstairs suite at a hotel that was flooded last week that doubled as guest quarters and a newsroom, and it was across the highway from – you guessed it – a Waffle House.

Ozark native Julian Danner was pausing for a cup of coffee there Friday afternoon.

Danner works maintenance for the 11 area Waffle Houses owned by Laurie and Tim Odom. And if FEMA is depending upon his restaurants to gauge the status of East Texas, they’d say it’s green.

“We had three stores up and serving food almost immediately,” he said, adding that it took until Thursday to get all 11 fully operational.

The company recently demolished and rebuilt its restaurant at that location, and the new facility had only been open a month. There was at least two feet of water in the restaurant at the height of Port Arthur’s flooding.

“As soon as the water went down enough that we could get here, we were working,” he said. “Waffle House corporate doesn’t play.

“We’re a franchise, but corporate sent teams from all over – Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana,” Danner said. “Some of them left today headed toward Florida to see where the storm (Irma) goes.”

The Jimmy Johnson Blvd. store was closed for four days, reopened with a limited menu, and returned to full menu on Wednesday. Waitresses Jacobi Jackson and Chasity Only said customers were happy – and hungry. Jackson is a three-year Waffle House veteran; Only has only been on the job for two weeks.

Like many other business, Waffle House has dealt with the challenge of operating when many of its employees are displaced.

“Three days after the storm, we had about 50 percent retention of employees,” Danner said. “Now, we’re at about 80 percent.”

The Odoms also suffered personal losses, or likely their restaurants would have opened even more quickly.

“Our owners had nine feet of water in their house,” Danner said. “They had purchased $10,000 worth of generators to make sure all of the restaurants could get running, but they were in their garage and flooded with the house.”

In FEMA’s terms, the crisis has passed. Waffle Houses – and many other businesses – are open. But recovery has only just begun. In this county alone, it is estimated that 20,000 houses flooded, and only 16 percent of homeowners had flood insurance. There are still people in shelters; and the mold is beginning to grow.

Unfortunately, Irma has also made these victims yesterday’s news, and will divert some recovery resources. Those of us who have been lucky enough to be spared should pay it forward, for we, too, could find ourselves storm victims again.


Michele Gerlach is publisher of The Star-News.