After Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) developed an unexpected, albeit informal, metric for understanding the aftermath of a disaster: the Waffle House Index. By looking at the number of Waffle Houses that are closed (or operating with a limited menu), FEMA has a rough understanding of just how bad things are on the ground — and where they might need to focus their energies. It boils down to this: if the Waffle House is closed for longer than a day, things are pretty bad.
Of course, every disaster and every affected community is a little bit different. The sluggishness in the federal response to Puerto Rico’s crisis has been a reminder of the many ways that the realities of life in the U.S. territory are different from those in the states. There is another difference between Puerto Rico and many other parts of the U.S. that FEMA generally serves: Puerto Rico does not have a single Waffle House. It does, however, have the highest concentration of Walmart stores per square mile — and Walmart maintains an RSS feed of the operational statuses of its stores.
The Walmarts on Puerto Rico
What makes places like Waffle House and Walmart a decent starting point for understanding the impact of a disaster is that these establishments are highly motivated to continue or restore operations as soon as possible. Waffle House first drew the attention of FEMA because of how quickly it returned to operating status, even on a limited basis, after a disaster. In other words, if the Waffle House fully closed, there is trouble.
Walmart also has procedures and structures in place to restore operations after an upheaval. It maintains a 24/7 emergency response center in Bentonville, Arkansas that has established a number of local level partners in places where Walmart operates to ensure disaster preparedness. Walmart has invested substantial resources and staff to ensure its resiliency. Like Waffle House, if Walmart is closed, things are not going so well.
Jon Pedder, an engineer at Esri, created a live map of Walmarts on Puerto Rico from the company’s RSS feed of store statuses. On Saturday, September 23, when he began building his application, he found that of the 40+ Walmart stores on island, only three stores were operating in any capacity three days after Hurricane Maria landed.
Now, almost two weeks after the storm, about one-third of all the Walmarts on the island remain closed.
Understanding the data coming out of a disaster-struck area
Though it is striking that a vast multinational corporation is struggling to restore functionality, FEMA need not rely solely on the existence of Waffle Houses or Walmarts to know that things in Puerto Rico are on the brink (if not already in the middle) of a humanitarian crisis.
As reported in other outlets, much of Puerto Rico remains without power, without cell service, and with diminishing supplies of food and water. Even seemingly positive news of reopening stores contains another layer that Walmart’s RSS feed does not capture: the supplies in the stores are running out.
The informal metrics of operating Waffle Houses and Walmarts serve as a blunt tool, when much of the other sources of data have gone dark and communication has become difficult, if not impossible, for many. Disaster, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. The Walmart RSS feed is a reminder of the importance of data in understanding the circumstances of a disaster-struck area and the limitations of how that data is presently collected and distributed. There is much work to be done for Puerto Rico, and for the superstorms that a warmer planet may bring.