In the aftermath of a major hurricane like Irene or Katrina, or a tornado like the one in Joplin, Missouri, earlier this year, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency relies on a few metrics to assess how destructive the storm was, including looking at aerial photographs and studying wind speed. But one of the more unlikely measures is the Waffle House Index. It works like this: If a Waffle House is serving a full menu, FEMA knows damage in an area is limited. If it's open but not serving any hot food, that indicates things are shaky. If it's closed, there's probably severe damage. The index is so reliable because Waffle House has a reputation for bouncing back quickly. Its 1,600 restaurants are spread throughout some of the country's most disaster-prone areas, from the mid-Atlantic to Florida and across the Gulf Coast, so the chain is well acquainted with dealing with setbacks. If it can open after a storm, it will. These four guidelines explain just how they do it—and how you can use their rules for when crises hit your world.
Waffle House Principle #1: Have a Manual
There may not be a huge storm brewing right now, but Waffle House knows, sooner or later, one will hit. As this article in The Wall Street Journal explains, the chain has a manual for opening after a disaster, outlining for managers and employees what to serve if, say, the generator's on, but they have no ice, or if they can turn on their gas stoves but can't get the heat lamps to work. Waffle House takes action where it can, solves whatever problems it's able to and works with what it has to get through the situation. Likewise, you may not know when your next crisis will hit, but Mary Steinhardt, EdD, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin, can tell you this: There will be one. The longer we live, Steinhardt says, the more challenging situations we'll have to confront. Start by taking stock of the weather risks: Do you live in Tornado Alley? Or is your house on a flood plain? Do you have insurance for those instances? Then think about your life: If you're the parent of a small child, have emergency numbers (poison control, his pediatrician) handy; if you have a pet, determine where you'd go if you both had to evacuate. It's about taking some time to think about what could go wrong and working backward to figure out what you would do and what you would need.
Waffle House Principle #2: Accept the Situation
Hurricane Katrina affected more than 100 Waffle House outposts, and 75 percent of them reopened within a few days of the storm. Company spokesperson Kelly Thrasher says one of the business's top goals is reopening quickly, and the key is assessing the damage and then taking recovery bit by bit. If a building is still standing but the power's out, they bring in generators. Then, they work on figuring out how to get grits and their famous Bert's Chili back on the menu. By the same token, says Steinhardt, if your world has been turned upside down, you may have to take a strategy of acceptance too. Assess where you are. You may be faced with a tough situation—planning a funeral, for instance—so confront each part separately. Call the funeral home first. Then worry about the eulogy.
Waffle House Principle #3: Be Flexible
A Waffle House will face the same Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 125 mph that every other restaurant in the area faces. Is its menu somehow more hurricane-friendly? No. Its staff is just a little more flexible. So if the coffee machine won't work because the power's not on, the cooks boil water on the grill and pour it over beans they ground the night before.
Although there is research suggesting our levels of resilience may be influenced by our genes, studies have shown that people who can quickly recover from setbacks tend to have certain similar personality traits too. [CE NOTE: I don't understand the "although" relationship between the research and studies. They seem like the same thing, no?] It's not exactly a surprise that Steinhardt says these characteristics are calmness, confidence and flexibility. But even those of us who fall more on the high-strung, less-flexible-minded part of the spectrum can increase our sense of resilience. In Steinhardt's 10 years of studying and teaching the subject, she herself has gotten better at withstanding difficult situations. Your goal, she says, is a familiar one: to be like a tree exposed to years of strong winds, bending instead of being snapped to smithereens. You can start by practicing on a small, daily frustration. If what you're doing isn't working, can you think of a different way to attack the problem? Or if everything has fallen apart, can you stop your internal voice from screaming, "No! This can't be happening. Oh my God!" and take a breath before giving back in to the panic? What you're trying to do is to practice being a little more limber in your thinking and find your way to calmness in less-threatening situations. That way, when things do go haywire, you're able to handle them a little more easily.
Waffle House Principle #4: Know That You Will Get Through This
At Waffle House, managers know that even if they had to shut down and even if the community is still rebuilding, within a few days or weeks, their employees will be back to taking their regular customers' orders for, say, a fiesta omelet with extra jalapeño peppers. After a crisis, you may still be dealing with insurance forms for months, or grief for years, but at some point you will go back to work, to the supermarket and to the beach on a sunny day. With those future moments in mind, says Steinhardt, "it's impossible not to think in empowering ways."
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