Nobody better tell the NYT editorial board about the Waffle House Index

posted at 3:21 pm on October 31, 2012 by Mary Katharine Ham

As flood waters were pouring into every low point in New York City Monday night, the New York Times took the opportunity to knock Mitt Romney for remarks he made during the Republican primary about federal disaster assistance in an editorial entitled, “A Big Storm Requires Big Government.” In doing so, the Grey Lady followed in the footsteps of Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo. From the editorial:

Most Americans have never heard of the National Response Coordination Center, but they’re lucky it exists on days of lethal winds and flood tides. The center is the war room of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where officials gather to decide where rescuers should go, where drinking water should be shipped, and how to assist hospitals that have to evacuate.

Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of “big government,” which is why Mitt Romney wants to eliminate it. At a Republican primary debate last year, Mr. Romney was asked whether emergency management was a function that should be returned to the states. He not only agreed, he went further.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.” Mr. Romney not only believes that states acting independently can handle the response to a vast East Coast storm better than Washington, but that profit-making companies can do an even better job. He said it was “immoral” for the federal government to do all these things if it means increasing the debt.

Here’s the whole exchange, which Jordan Weissman of The Atlantic headlines, “No, Mitt Romney doesn’t really want to kill off FEMA.” Instead, it’s a nonspecific pep talk for local control, when possible, paired with a warning about the dangers of spending future generations into oblivion.

The NYT editorial is opportunistic and lazy. It asserts Romney’s notion is “absurd” without actually explaining why. It asserts that Republicans “don’t like the idea of free aid for poor people, or they think people should pay for their bad decisions.” Yes, that’s why Republicans, conservatives and evangelical Christians famously steer clear of Red Cross donations, volunteering at church drives for victims, and picking up debris for neighbors. You never see any of that because we “don’t like the idea of free aid for poor people” in the wake of a natural disaster. This is what they think of half the country. The editorial also calls sequestration cuts “Republican-instigated,” a claim which Politifact declared “Mostly False.”

The logical conclusion of the editorial, read with more charity than they afforded Romney, is that FEMA and federal disaster relief run perfectly well and that no one should propose changes to their structures unless that change is to give them more money. The NYT scoffed at the idea that “profit-making companies can do an even better job” and discounted the contributions of state and local governments entirely. As too many do with government functions, they assume spending more money means FEMA is doing more good. Of course, more money could just mean more poison trailers and more fraud, but we’ll all feel good that the agency is spending more money, I suppose.

Perhaps the New York Times editorial writers should read their own newspaper, as it updated us on the lingering weaknesses of FEMA Monday—a GAO report found inconsistencies in how it trains and hires disaster assistance employees— and offered this nugget about FEMA director Craig Fugate’s plans:

Since [Katrina] it has tried to strengthen its ability to respond to a major disaster, both by rebuilding its own supply management system and personnel, and by fostering stronger ties to outside parties, including the Defense Department and even the owners of big box retail stores, which Mr. Fugate said might be turned to as a backup for emergency supplies.

This is the same Fugate, praised for leading FEMA competently through Midwestern tornadoes and hurricanes alike, who coined the term “Waffle House Index”* to describe the metric FEMA now uses to determine where its resources are needed most. Here’s how it works. The Waffle House chain has a huge number of stores located in the Southeast and Midwest in areas that frequently see devastating storms. As such, it has created an enviable corporate culture so attuned to disaster recovery that Fugate knows, “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”

The Wall Street Journal did a great story on Waffle House’s disaster prep in 2011, which just made me an even bigger fan of Waffle House and the free market:

Waffle House Inc. has 1,600 restaurants stretching from the mid-Atlantic to Florida and across the Gulf Coast, leaving it particularly vulnerable to hurricanes. Other businesses, of course, strive to reopen as quickly as possible after disasters. But the Waffle House, which spends almost nothing on advertising, has built a marketing strategy around the goodwill gained from being open when customers are most desperate…

The company fully embraced its post-disaster business strategy after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Seven of its restaurants were destroyed and 100 more shut down, but those that reopened quickly were swamped with customers.

The company decided to beef up its crisis-management processes. Senior executives developed a manual for opening after a disaster, bulked up on portable generators, bought a mobile command center and gave employees key fobs with emergency contacts.

The restaurant chain has a guide for serving limited menus if there is “gas but no electricity, or a generator but no ice,” which allows the company to keep the supply chain fine-tuned and perishables headed where they’re used, not wasted. It becomes, literally, a port in a storm for many displaced families. Waffle House executives say the endeavor is likely not a profit-making venture, but for a company that doesn’t advertise, its value in community goodwill is priceless.

Situation Room

The Waffle House Situation Room on Monday.

This private company—the kind the NYT editorial board thinks it’s an “absurd” notion to give a bigger part in FEMA response— is already working so fast and so well in disaster response that it is a guidepost for the necessarily slower and clumsier federal government. It is already doing a better, faster job than the federal government, which is why Fugate can use it as a gauge. And, they’re not the only ones. Profit-making entities like Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot have all managed to create admirable disaster preparation plans, which Fugate himself has deemed worthy of including as part of the federal government’s disaster plan. They do it because it’s good for the community, but they are also able to do it because of the efficiencies of the market, the practice they’ve gained by competing with other chains, all the vital information embedded in price signals, the incentive to get the community back on its shopping feet, and intimate local knowledge of the areas they serve— all things the federal government lacks. And, yes, they do it because there’s plenty of brand loyalty in it for any company that can provide a hot meal or plywood in an emergency. It’s amazing, not absurd.

To its credit, the NYT is hosting a debate where others are engaging the ideas the editorial board refused to.

Jim Pethokoukis of AEI weighs in:

A superstorm requires supersmart government. But making wise decisions from a distance is hard. Economists call this the problem of local knowledge. The information needed for making rational plans is distributed among many actors, and it is extremely difficult for a far-off, centralized authority to access it. The devil really is in the details. (This is why the price system, which aggregates all that dispersed insight, is more economically efficient than a command-and-control system.)

So emergency and disaster response should be, as much as possible, pushed down to the state and local level. A national effort should be reserved for truly catastrophic events. Indeed this preference for “local first, national second” can be found in the legislation authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The number of federal emergencies has soared, stretching capabilities. Increasingly state and private resources are overlooked.

But just the opposite has been happening in recent decades. There were, according to a Heritage Foundation analysis, 28 FEMA declarations a year during the Reagan administration, 44 during Bush I, 90 during Clinton, 130 during Bush II, and 153 so far during Obama’s term. The result is federal emergency response effort stretched thin in its capabilities to deal with major disasters.

He also notes the heroic performance of Wal-Mart after Hurricane Katrina, from which the federal government could have taken plenty of lessons (and it sounds like Fugate has):

Wal-Mart arrived in the New Orleans area long before FEMA and had the supplies that the community needed.

Phillip Capitano, mayor of the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, reported that, “the only lifeline in Kenner was the Wal-Mart stores.

In addition to what they sold as a result of quickly re-opening their stores, Wal-Mart also provided a large amount of free merchandise, including prescription drugs, to those in the worst-hit areas of the Gulf Coast.

The folks on the NYT editorial board are so ideologically blinded that they’re now knocking private donations to disasters, in general, as a way to bash Mitt Romney, but maybe they’ll listen to the president himself, who noted the federal government’s limitations during his remarks on Sandy, given at the Red Cross, mind you:

“My message to the governors as well as to the mayors is anything they need, we will be there, and we will cut through red tape,” Mr. Obama said. “We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules.”

A reasonable and reasonably intelligent person might conclude that if the federal government’s first act must be to remove the barriers its regulations place on disaster recovery, then it should perhaps focus on getting out of the way first while allowing more flexible, local entities to get to work on the ground. This already happens, to a great extent, because it must. Charities like Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse come in first, partnering with local churches, businesses, and government, later backed up with resources and employees from the federal government.

Disaster recovery requires nimble decision-making, flexibility, and money. The federal government has only one of those, and arguably none of them if you check out the debt. It is harmful to argue, as the NYT does, for a bigger and ever-less flexible system, ruled entirely by leaders in Washington and to poison the idea of states and private companies taking on larger roles. A federal budget line should not be the measure of success in disaster recovery (and if it is, maybe the paper should take that up with President Obama). If Waffle House spent millions yet served only 16 meals in stormstruck areas, we would never praise its efforts. Perhaps comparable standards are in order for the federal government.

Romney’s comments allow for any number of combinations in the Tetris game of private-public partnerships shown to actually help victims quickly. The NYT editorial attempts to make politically toxic any discussion of innovation in a field where lives and livelihoods depend on it. Which one is extreme?

We often hear from the president and his allies that “we’re all in this together.” America agrees, but to paint the federal government alone as the one true path to helping our neighbors ignores reality, eschews innovation, and ultimately hurts those we’re trying to help.

*The Waffle House Index is, of course, less useful in this particular storm because of its lack of franchises in the Northeast, but it is being used as a gauge in Maryland and Pennsylvania.


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As I recall the IOWA floods as in the case of the Nashville flooding were basically ignored by President Present and his Adminstration.

Missilengr on October 31, 2012 at 6:04 PM

I did not know this. We have a Waffle House in our town, mostly we make fun of it, but if there is ever a disaster, I will make sure I check the Waffle House Index.

lea on October 31, 2012 at 6:01 PM

Hey, where’s all the love for IHOP?

slickwillie2001 on October 31, 2012 at 6:06 PM

Hey, where’s all the love for IHOP?

slickwillie2001 on October 31, 2012 at 6:06 PM

Don’t be silly. If Waffle House is an iconic Southern fixture, the IHOP is the United Nations of places that have syrup on the tables.

Happy Nomad on October 31, 2012 at 6:13 PM

Hey, where’s all the love for IHOP?

slickwillie2001 on October 31, 2012 at 6:06 PM

IHOP is a nationwide corporate operation with a bottom line that is investor oriented — and definitely not community oriented.

They close their doors and lock them tight whenever the slightest disturbance is detected in the force.

FlatFoot on October 31, 2012 at 6:13 PM

It’s a “mom and pop” kind of place… The foundation of America..

Al Hall on October 31, 2012 at 4:10 PM

Um — yeah. I said “Family owned and operated”.

Your reading comprehension frizzolectric gazatinator working properly? Might wanna get that checked.

FlatFoot on October 31, 2012 at 6:17 PM

If people actually cared about FEMA and it’s effectiveness, it would have made the news that President Obama replaced nearly half of the FEMA employees with recent college grads in AmeriCorps.

In order to do this everyone in FEMA had to reapply. People that had 15+ years of experience were not retained. The people that were retained were assigned to levels that bore no relation to their actual experience (some with 5+ years are listed as trainees while others with 6-months are being deployed to NE).

Before anyone thinks that this is a smart, money saving move, it’s worth noting that the majority of the people in FEMA (and almost all that were affected by this) are on-call employees. They are only paid when they’re deployed to a disaster so there’s no cost savings by replacing them with AmeriCorps folks making the same amount.

JadeNYU on October 31, 2012 at 6:19 PM

may I suggest that somebody who works on public policy (at that level) should be encouraged to find a real job…

affenhauer on October 31, 2012 at 5:54 PM

Well then, I would suggest that you have a simplistic view of how government should work. I’m not disagreeing about the need to cut and look critically at what government does but your slash and burn mentality is not part of any solution. It is this same mentality that makes the left think they can solve the nation’s problems by gutting the defense budget.

Could government be more efficient? Absolutely. When has that not been the case. But if we are to go about cutting government let us do it with intelligence and some amount of strategic inititive instead of likening anybody on the federal payroll as worthless. Which I believe was an exact quote of your post.

Happy Nomad on October 31, 2012 at 6:20 PM

The Old Gray tramp had better watch out now there’s wacky Angria Mitchell for competition…

…..and Prissy Chrissy Matthews is the simp sitting alone in the Waffle House corner who laughs maniacally every few minutes but doesn’t order anything.

viking01 on October 31, 2012 at 6:22 PM

anybody on the federal payroll as worthless. Which I believe was an exact quote of your post.

Happy Nomad on October 31, 2012 at 6:20 PM

An exact quote? Locate and post, please…

affenhauer on October 31, 2012 at 6:23 PM

An exact quote? Locate and post, please…

affenhauer on October 31, 2012 at 6:23 PM

My apologies. It was natasha333 at 5:18 PM that called all government employees worthless. You just made the claim they all didn’t have a real job. I think you can understand why I was confused.

Happy Nomad on October 31, 2012 at 6:41 PM

Happy Nomad on October 31, 2012 at 6:41 PM

Yeah, I can see it. Nobody’s worthless; federal government employees are just misapplied: policy should be overwhelmingly set at the state level, not the federal. I guess it’s a matter of which government you work for. Not to say that there should be no federal employees — of course there are a few functions that have to be performed at that level — just enough of them to cover what the Constitution permits…

affenhauer on October 31, 2012 at 6:46 PM

Anyone else remember Ronaldus Magnus 1992 convention quote about Billy Clintoon’s foreign policy experience comprised of “once having eaten at the International House of Pancakes”?

viking01 on October 31, 2012 at 6:53 PM

I don’t like it when groups say “We need money, not consumables…” to support relief efforts. Numerous incidents of fraud have made people more reluctant to donate to worthwhile causes. Look at what happened in Haiti.
Either accept emergency supplies or don’t – but don’t demand cash instead.

Oh, and Firefox does NOT prevent videos from auto-starting.

RMCS_USN on October 31, 2012 at 6:56 PM

Waffle House is awesome. An egg sammich with pickles and a cup of coffee will set you back about three bucks and ten minutes.

tom daschle concerned on October 31, 2012 at 6:57 PM

War on IHOP – nice!

22044 on October 31, 2012 at 7:10 PM

The FIRST organization the Red Cross calls every time is not FEMA. It’s the Southern Baptist Convention, which has the largest mobile emergency response structure in the US. They have portable kitchens and volunteers on tap all across the country. Their church members jump in vans, busses and trucks and head to wherever they are needed. They were there on 9/11, there for Katrina, and they rolled to the NE as soon as they could.

Yes, those “evil” Christians . . .

PastorJon on October 31, 2012 at 7:18 PM

Where I’m from the chainsaws and 4x4s come out immediately, in many cases clearing state and federal highways long before government shows up. Unlike in NYC for instance, where unions shut down snow-clearing efforts and helpless “city-slickers” freeze to death.

stout77 on October 31, 2012 at 7:20 PM

If people actually cared about FEMA and it’s effectiveness, it would have made the news that President Obama replaced nearly half of the FEMA employees with recent college grads in AmeriCorps.

In order to do this everyone in FEMA had to reapply. People that had 15+ years of experience were not retained. The people that were retained were assigned to levels that bore no relation to their actual experience (some with 5+ years are listed as trainees while others with 6-months are being deployed to NE).

Before anyone thinks that this is a smart, money saving move, it’s worth noting that the majority of the people in FEMA (and almost all that were affected by this) are on-call employees. They are only paid when they’re deployed to a disaster so there’s no cost savings by replacing them with AmeriCorps folks making the same amount.

JadeNYU on October 31, 2012 at 6:19 PM

worth repeating

Meanwhile, the press is trying to make a tempest out of the storm, but the storm is over. It looks like other storms, but not as bad as Katrina or Andrew.

Since other regionss get storms too, it might have been better not to approach it as if it was more bad for this area to get hit with what routinely hits other regions. It plays wrong. Just before an election, it might pump up the east coast victims, but boomerang elsewhere

Just sayin.

However, the MSM got itself into this, so they can get themselves out

entagor on October 31, 2012 at 7:23 PM

Maybe someone could put the NYT editors (et al) in contact with the local utility companies trying to respond to the damage cause by “SUPER-STORM SANDY” but having to WAIT for FEMA to ALLOW them to go to work. After all, FEMA has to determine what needs are most urgent, where the most urgent needs are located, who can respond to those needs, and whether the contemplated responders are using “UNION” labor or not. – Then they can issue a prioritized list and let people get to work (After a mandatory OSHA check of course)

SHEESH – Just GET OUT OF THE WAY!!!!

P.S. NEWS FLASH – Big Government is NOT the answer, oh and – the Prez is a liar!

Fatal on October 31, 2012 at 7:37 PM

We also have a Waffle House and we never go there. It just isn’t on my radar for eating out. However we have relatives in the South and once in a while we are traveling on Christamas Day. The only place to have a sit-down meal is Waffle House because they are the only ones open. Even gas is difficult to find on that day.

We had a big storm in our town this summer that had many people without power both in the city and in the county. We were out for over 10 hours, the longest we have ever been out. Talking to friends later they told us that the Waffle House was the only restaurant open while the power was out because they had been out longer than we had and all of their freezer and refrigerator stuff was spoiled. No FEMA showed up with dry ice and it’s main headquarters is only 10 miles from us. Privatize it locally. It’s the best way to go.

BetseyRoss on October 31, 2012 at 7:47 PM

Waffle House is awesome. An egg sammich with pickles and a cup of coffee will set you back about three bucks and ten minutes.

tom daschle concerned on October 31, 2012 at 6:57 PM

Which is why I was amazed at the sophistication of their disaster planning. And why I am utterly impressed with their organization. Too bad it is a private company because I’d buy stock for the simple fact they have good management.

Happy Nomad on October 31, 2012 at 8:04 PM

SHEESH – Just GET OUT OF THE WAY!!!!

Fatal on October 31, 2012 at 7:37 PM

Amen!

Happy Nomad on October 31, 2012 at 8:07 PM

Love the Waffle House! When I was younger, it was our last stop after all the bars closed. Coffee would make your hair curl. lol

Barred on October 31, 2012 at 8:14 PM

Oh, and Firefox does NOT prevent videos from auto-starting.

RMCS_USN

It does with the proper plugins installed.

xblade on October 31, 2012 at 8:20 PM

Economists call this the problem of local knowledge

No, it’s only a problem if you are a statist. For the rest of us, it’s a blessing. Subsidiarity. Neighbor helping neighbor. Charity. But we have a whole ruling elite that is close to thinking the existence of charity is a failure of government.

quiz1 on October 31, 2012 at 8:29 PM

Waffle House is a great American success story. Their advertising budget is practically zilch, so their primary advertisement investment is in goodwill. And those who go to them go again and again.

The best Waffle House’s IMO are the ones near Interstates, where the traffic makes for a very fast staff serving food very quickly. Usually by the time I’m settling in my seat, a waitress is pouring coffee, handing me the menu, and is ready to take my order. The food is very good (never five-star, but go to a five-star restaurant if you want that), hot, and fast. Their coffee is good and just the thing when you’ve imbibed a few.

And their WAFFLES are awesome!

itsspideyman on October 31, 2012 at 8:43 PM

Boo Waffle House and Walmart. People don’t need food, shelter, clothing, and supplies during a disaster…they need money!!!

Spliff Menendez on October 31, 2012 at 9:01 PM

Waffle House is a conservative company, and hires many, many minorities. It struck me on a recent trip that almost all these employees will vote for Obama, who if elected, will increase their employer’s taxes and other operating expenses through regulations. Then Waffle House will have to lay off people and those nasty Republicans will be to blame. People just can’t figure this stuff out.

Ken James on October 31, 2012 at 9:22 PM

Nah – the Waffle House menu peaks out at pork chops & eggs (over easy) with said waffle on the side. I practically lived on that during a 3-month TDY in Jacksonville…

affenhauer on October 31, 2012 at 5:44 PM

Yep, scrambled tho for me with a Pecan waffle (yum). Oh and a side of hashes- spanked, slapped and rubbed or something.

OkieDoc on October 31, 2012 at 9:24 PM

Waffle House is a conservative company, and hires many, many minorities. It struck me on a recent trip that almost all these employees will vote for Obama, who if elected, will increase their employer’s taxes and other operating expenses through regulations. Then Waffle House will have to lay off people and those nasty Republicans will be to blame. People just can’t figure this stuff out.

Ken James on October 31, 2012 at 9:22 PM

Neither can the New York Times — or maybe they just don’t want people to know.

AesopFan on October 31, 2012 at 10:41 PM

Oh, and Firefox does NOT prevent videos from auto-starting.

RMCS_USN on October 31, 2012 at 6:56 PM

No, it doesn’t. But installing any of several safe add-ons does.

Here’s one I like.

Difficultas_Est_Imperium on October 31, 2012 at 11:25 PM

Size matters. This is something physics has taught me.

Something else physics also taught me was that the more massive something is the more inertia it has. The more inertia a thing has the more energy it takes to get it moving to any appreciable speed (or to get it to stop).

Bigger (and more massive) does not always mean better. If you want something to act and act quickly it needs to be as lean and as small as possible.

Specialization also helps. A decentralized FEMA would help states prepare for disasters that occur commonly while also providing resources when a state is hit with a disaster that doesn’t commonly occur. It would make little sense to prepare for a hurricane in land-locked Utah just as it would make little sense for Florida to prepare for an earthquake. Devoting resources to disasters that just don’t happen makes little sense. FEMA can’t specialize because it has to be ready for everything.

I’ll take a lean and mean Waffle House model of emergency preparedness over the bloated bureaucracy that is FEMA any disaster stricken day of the week… and twice on Sundays.

Chaz706 on November 1, 2012 at 1:03 AM

Terrific article, thanks for educating me about Waffle House. I had no idea about their management, and didn’t even realize that I never see them advertise. They’ll be getting more of my business for sure.

Sir Loin on November 1, 2012 at 1:30 AM

It’s a “mom and pop” kind of place… The foundation of America..

Al Hall on October 31, 2012 at 4:10 PM

Um — yeah. I said “Family owned and operated”.

Your reading comprehension frizzolectric gazatinator working properly? Might wanna get that checked.

FlatFoot on October 31, 2012 at 6:17 PM

Sorry.. I was drinking the hard stuff.. Better now.

Al Hall on November 1, 2012 at 3:05 AM

On the one side, we can clearly see that Romney wants to disband FEMA. On the other hand, if he keeps FEMA around, it’s probably for reasons described in detail by Alex Jones on his reputable website.

I don’t see a positive here folks, that’s why I’m sticking with the guy I know and trust (Barack/Joe). I didn’t vote for them in 2008 but they will be getting me out to vote this time around. Barack was given a ****storm, and made it into a nice looking (if not quite 100% complete) snow globe. Let’s finish the job.

akaniku on October 31, 2012 at 3:33 PM

Finish the job? Hell, he’s already broken the glass on the snow globe; I guess you’d like to give him a hammer to smash the base too?

PalinLover on November 1, 2012 at 6:09 AM

In doing so, the Grey Blue Lady followed in the footsteps of Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo.

FIFY

Axeman on November 1, 2012 at 7:49 AM

Great post.

I still remember Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississippi when the Katrina epicenter hit in Gulfport/Biloxi, telling his fellow Mississippians (as the relief trucks rolled past them into New Oreleans), “Folks, we’re on our own.”

NoPain on November 1, 2012 at 8:14 AM

re: PastorJon on October 31, 2012 at 7:18 PM

Yep. September 12, 1979. Hurricane Frederic. Mobile, Alabama. I certainly appreciated the gallon of water and chunk of dry ice from the National Guardsman, but oh, my…the scrambled eggs and sausage from that big blue Southern Bapstist kitchen on wheels tasted soooo good!

Galtian on November 1, 2012 at 11:29 AM

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