How Hashbrowns Keep Us Safe (Really!)

Those who know me well, know that I’m not overly fond of air travel and spend an unfortunate amount of time traveling by car from Cincinnati to far-flung locations like Washington DC, Atlanta, Tampa,  Chicago, Kansas City and all places in between.  In all my travels, there is really only one consistency:  The Waffle House. With over 2,100 location in the United States, it’s hard to miss this American classic. 

As many of you may know, when visiting a Waffle House, particular attention MUST be paid to how a person orders their Hashbrowns.  There are few joys in a person’s life as great as when they finally decide “smother, covered, and chunked” or “smothered, peppered, and diced” or whatever combination satisfies them the most.  It’s a rite of passage, much like buying your first car, or deciding whether to attend college. Knowing your Hashbrown preference is what separates the newbies from the Waffle House veterans. Just ask renowned chef Anthony Bourdain . . .

How is this keeping us safe and healthy?  While the jury is still out on the ‘healthy’ part, it’s been known for several years that FEMA monitors the “Waffle House Index” as a proxy for the availability of basic infrastructure and workforce resources after a wide-spread disaster strikes an area.  The logic being, if the event (hurricane, flood, tornado, wildfire, etc) is so widespread as to disrupt supply chains, electricity, workforce transportation, and other basic business necessities, it would be apparent by the closing of popular, geographically 24-hour retail locations . . . like the venerable Waffle House.

Since the creation of the original “Waffle House Index” after hurricane Katrina, FEMA has expanded the corporate monitoring to include retailers Walmart, Lowes, and Home Depot.  But it was this little American diner that first caused FEMA Director Fugate to say  you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad”.  Very, very true. Bad for so many reasons.

So, what does all this have to do with GIS and health?  It follows from my own ongoing fascination with innovative community metrics that provide insight into health and healthy lifestyle questions, that are difficult to quantify other ways.  The “Waffle House Index” is a great example.  So is research using wastewater analysis to determine substance abuse rates for metro areas.  And crowdsourced air quality monitoring with wearable devices.

As I’ve said in previous blog posts and in presentations around the country (or at least the eastern half, within driving distance), Health and GIS are intrinsically linked, because “Everything Happens Somewhere”. The cool part of my job is trying to figure out how to measure and described that “happening”.

Mark Carrozza

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