“Most of the people that came in, they were eating their first hot meal in days. For some, us being open brought a sense of normalcy, offering them basic necessities in an area that’s destroyed.”
(TNS) — Eleven panhandle Waffle House store managers turned off the lights of their 24-hour, hash brown diner establishments and locked the doors.
It was going to be a bad storm.
But 315 members of Waffle House’s emergency jump team waited on the outskirts preparing for the worst as Hurricane Michael quickly grew to a Category 5 storm.
“It was like a bomb had gone off,” said Duanne Wentworth, senior vice president of Waffle House over the panhandle area. “So much of Panama City proper, the part of the city away from the beach, was heavily damaged.”
A large billboard had fallen and crushed the roof of a Waffle House in Callaway. Three other establishments in the area received significant damage. While another eight faced power and water loss.
Local restaurant managers began checking the status of employees. In this case, 75% of the Waffle House employees in the area were unable to get to work because of blocked roadways or personal home damages suffered by Michael.
It was the kind of disaster Waffle House has spent 30 years preparing for.
The rain bands of Hurricane Michael had just cleared the area, and a quietness hung over the town and Panama Beach like an uneasy haze.
The jump team sprang into action — its mission: Get the lights on and the grills simmering in the affected restaurants.
Powerless stores were provided generators and gasoline, and propane for the grills. Water-less stores were given hundreds of bottles of water for drinking and boiling.
Stores without employees had jump team members fill in roles while local workers attended to personal matters.
Portable toilets were transported to restaurants without plumbing services.
Construction sources were contacted and mobilized to heavily damaged restaurants.
And about 40 food trucks rolled into the area to stock freezers.
Burgers and hash browns were ready to serve in 10 of the 11 stores caught in Michael’s crosshairs. The Callaway restaurant was the only store not to reopen within four days because of its caved-in roof.
“Most of the people that came in, they were eating their first hot meal in days,” Wentworth said. “For some, us being open brought a sense of normalcy, offering them basic necessities in an area that’s destroyed.”
Being able to get restaurants up and running in the aftermath of a disaster is the sole function of the jump team, which was designed 30 years ago after Category 4 Hurricane Hugo made landfall in the southeastern United Stated and caused $10 billion worth of damages.
“In 25 states we have 1,950 restaurants. Any hurricane in the Atlantic is going to have an impact on us," said Pat Warner, Waffle House’s director of public relations. “Our restaurants don’t close. So Hugo was the first big storm where we put things together to keep operations moving quickly.”
As a storm develops, Waffle House leaders at the Atlanta headquarters open the “storm center” which follows storm movements, and acts as a communications hub directing jump teams and construction resources.
A key part of the team’s success is stocking up supplies immediately following a hurricane season. A close relationship with distributor US Foods allows Waffle House to quickly stock up additional food into warehouses with trucks ready to deliver in the onset of a storm.
Of course the other key is an organized jump team, which is made up of restaurant and district managers, as well as any other experienced employees that know how to run a restaurant from states outside of a storm’s path. The team is divided into two groups: restaurant operations and the support team.
Restaurant operators fill in positions of a restaurant where needed when local employees are missing, and the support team delivers equipment and food where it’s necessary, Warner said.
Both groups were challenged earlier in 2018 not just with Hurricane Michael but also by Category 4 Hurricane Florence in North Carolina and South Carolina:
Florence’s storm surges and destructive winds caused $22 billion worth of damages, according to FEMA.
“Jump team members understand that it is part known and part unknown when we respond to emergencies.” said Randy Coleman, a Waffle House senior vice president in Columbia, S.C. Coleman has been part of several jump teams, but Florence brought challenges many on the team had not encountered before.
Record-breaking storm surge of 9 to 13 feet and devastating rainfall of 20 to 30 inches joined forces to produce catastrophic and life-threatening flooding, according to the National Weather Service.
“The scene on the coast of South Carolina was heavy preparation for a direct hit that did not happen," Coleman said. "The lingering water effects over North Carolina actually created flooding issues for the northeastern coastal parts of South Carolina. So, Florence combined the effects of force from wind and rain with flooding that was not necessarily expected.”
The team managed to map out areas deemed passable through “heavy communication” in a group text and smartphone traffic apps.
After every hurricane season, Waffle House jump team leaders meet and discuss how they can improve their “storm playbook.” And as prepared as the team was for Florence, the storm still offered new plays for the book, Warner said.
“I’d say the biggest takeaway from Florence was lodging,” Warner said. “You’ve got  jump team members, and you got to figure out where to put them.”
A hotel seemed like a good option until the hotel manager told the team he couldn’t lodge them as the hotel was not clean, and his staff members were unable to come to work.
“It’s key to have relationships built up before a storm,” Warner said. “In this case we made a new friend right there and ended up bartering with him. We asked, ‘If we cleaned up the hotel, can we stay here?’ And that worked out.”
Like its hash browns, Waffle House has crafted its team with years of experience, but it also takes notes from other companies that face the same challenge, such as Home Depot.
“We’re last to close and first to open,” said Home Depot spokesperson Christina Cornell. “We think of ourselves as part of the community response. They come before a storm to prepare and after to recover and clean up.”
Home Depot formed its own “Supply Chain Disaster Travel Team” in 2004, Cornell said. The team mobilizes associates in an oncoming emergency and deploys them wherever they are needed.
In 2017, 100 team members offered relief to warehouse employees in Houston who needed time off to repair their homes after Category 4 Hurricane Harvey caused $125 billion worth of damages to the area, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Home Depot officials in Atlanta coordinate team effort at their own storm support center, which has five rooms and is staffed with several hundred people.
Home Depot also relies on remote command centers activated in storm prone areas which check on the status of stores and employees, according to its website.
As additional support, the Home Depot supply chain, merchandising and operations teams stock trucks with necessary recovery items and station them directly outside of a strike zone for easy access.
In the aftermath of a storm, Home Depot offers its store locations as command centers for first responders looking to triage victims.
“Home Depot, we share ideas with them. They share with us,” Warner said. “They respond very well, and we learn a lot from them.”
All the planning and lessons shared still can’t fully prepare a company or a community for how destructive a storm can be.
“Seeing how quickly these storms can destroy something, it takes the breath out of you,” Wentworth said reflecting on Michael’s devastation to the panhandle.
Sixteen deaths were attributed to Michael along with $25 billion worth of damages, according to NHC data.
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