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How a Texas man turned Whataburger into the state’s power outage tracker

Hurricane Beryl had pummeled Southeast Texas on Monday, leaving millions in the Houston area without power. But with technical issues plaguing the tracker for the city’s main energy provider, there was no way to check the status of power outages — or find the still-lit pockets where residents could buy food, gas and other necessities.

Then Bryan Norton, a 55-year-old tech worker and podcast host, found help from an unlikely source: the Whataburger app.

The app’s map showed where its restaurants — which have a massive presence across Houston — were still open. Instead of providing Texans with info about where they could snag burgers, biscuits and taquitos, Norton soon noticed the map could be used to gauge where power in the city was still on or had been restored.

His discovery went viral after he posted about it on social media, where thousands credited him with helping them find out if their loved ones had power or how they could escape the sweltering heat as temperatures and humidity levels soared.

“The fact that Whataburger’s app is giving us that bit of hope — well, it doesn’t get more Texas than that,” Norton told The Washington Post.

The Whataburger app works as a power outage tracker, handy since the electric company doesn't show a map.
Still nearly 1.9 million power outages. pic.twitter.com/d8srWmw1oV

— BBQ Bryan (@BBQBryan) July 9, 2024

Norton’s eureka moment happened during a late-night hunt for food. His home in Tomball, Tex. — a town some 35 miles north of Houston’s center — lost power around 7 a.m. on Monday as Beryl made landfall as a Category 1 storm, toppling transmission lines and knocking down trees. His backup generator soon whirred to life, illuminating the house and kick-starting a fridge holding the barbecue enthusiast’s many pounds of meat. The internet, however, went down that afternoon.

Though he and his wife had planned to hunker down for a few days, Norton said they didn’t want to go “completely stir crazy.” That night, they decided to check for open restaurants — a search that led Norton to a restaurant chain that “tastes like my childhood memories,” he said.

He downloaded the Whataburger app, where the one restaurant in Tomball appeared open, making Norton a little skeptical. That’s why he widened his search to the whole Houston area — and soon saw a patchwork of gray and orange Ws, where the latter logos marked the open Whataburgers.

“You could see like this whole wave of gray and a couple of orange, and they changed little by little,” Norton said. “I was like, ‘Holy cow! Now we can see the scope of the issue.’ Obviously, it’s not a perfect tool, but it’s pretty solid.”

After Norton posted about it on X, it quickly spread on social media and was shared on neighborhood pages and family group chats. Users found that an open Whataburger signaled that nearby gas stations or stores might also have power — a useful tracking service at a time when utility company CenterPoint Energy’s power-restoration map was down.

As of Wednesday night, CenterPoint’s website shows power has been restored to over a million customers, down from a peak of some 2.26 million on Monday. About 40 percent of Whataburger’s 165 locations across the Houston area are open.

A CenterPoint spokesperson said in a statement to The Post that its outage map has been unavailable since a destructive storm in May led to “technical challenges” as customers flooded the site. There are plans to replace the map with a “redesigned cloud-based platform” by the end of July, the spokesperson added.

“We recognize the inconvenience to our customers and will continue providing updated outage information,” the statement adds.

The scale of the outages and lack of a tracking map has frustrated residents in the nation’s fourth-largest city. For Carliss Chatman, a business law professor at Southern Methodist University, the issue has raised questions about Houston’s preparedness.

“I can start my car from my phone anywhere in the world, but CenterPoint can’t tell me where power is out?” Chatman said. “Like, you’re telling me a burger place has better information about outages than a utility company?”

Like many Houston residents, Chatman spent much of Tuesday trying to check on her loved ones. All, she said, had the same burning question: “When will my power come back on?”

Chatman jumped on the Whataburger app after a friend shared a post about Norton’s trick. When she saw a Whataburger near her home was open even though her house was still without power, she thought the hack didn’t work.

Within 10 minutes, though, her electricity kicked back on. She said she compared her friends’ Zip codes to the Whataburger map and found it to be “really accurate” in indicating whether the areas had power.

When Michelle Guillot Thibodeaux, 49, heard about what’s now been dubbed the “Watt-aburger Map” or the “Whataburger Workaround,” she used it to try to figure out whether her Airbnb properties in Galveston still had power. After seeing the two Whataburgers in the area were marked as closed, she said she assumed power in the area was still out.

“It’s crazy and incredibly ironic that we’re leaning on a Texas staple like Whataburger to tell us where the electricity is,” said Thibodeaux. “But people are resourceful and they’ll do whatever they need to do to try and find out where the power is.”

Ed Nelson, Whataburger’s president and chief executive officer, said the company is glad that Houston residents have found the app useful. Still, he warned that it should “only be used as a general idea of power availability.”

It isn’t the first time a restaurant chain has been cited during storm emergencies. When disaster hits on the East Coast, even the Federal Emergency Management Agency is known to rely on what’s become known as the Waffle House Index to measure the severity of the situation.

Like the Whataburger tracker, if a Waffle House location is red — meaning it’s closed — conditions are considered serious.

Perhaps fittingly, one of the few places still operating near Thibodeaux’s Galveston properties was the Waffle House, she said.

Source: washingtonpost.com

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