A power company’s app couldn’t keep up after Hurricane Beryl—so Texans turned to a fast-food burger chain to track power outages

Dairy Queen may lay claim to the term “blizzard,” referring to its blended ice cream treat. But a Texas fast-food chain has garnered new popularity thanks to its association with another extreme weather event.

Whataburger, a cult-favorite chain among Texans, has become the unlikely source for power outage information following Hurricane Beryl’s lashing through the area Monday. The state’s main energy provider, CenterPoint Energy, experienced so much traffic, its outage app had technical difficulties loading, leaving residents to find other means of navigating loss of power and local business closures.

Bryan Norton, whose post on X about the app hack went viral, was able to ascertain the general pattern of outages across the city by looking at which Whataburger locations were open. A map on the chain’s app showed orange logos for open locations and gray ones for closed stores.  Norton has been without power for over 27 hours and has been frequently checking various apps to find open businesses

“It gives you hope because you’re not alone,” the 30-year Houston resident told Fortune while he waited in line at his local Whataburger. “But it also shows how massively widespread this is.”

Norton thought of using the Whataburger app for outage tracking on a trip home last week, when he and his wife stopped to get coffee. Google Maps told him a Starbucks location was open, but the Starbucks app said the location was closed—and ended up being correct. 

It’s a small comfort to Texans impacted by Monday’s Category 1 hurricane which knocked out power in 2.5 million homes and left eight people dead across Louisiana and Texas. As of Wednesday, over 1.6 million households in Houston and counties east of the city are still without power. The outages are an even greater inconvenience and danger amid a massive heat wave that caused temperatures in Houston to creep above 106 degrees.

CenterPoint published a map on its website showing where power has been restored and will replace its outage map with cloud-based data to accommodate greater traffic by the end of the month, CenterPoint spokesperson Joshua Solis told Fortune.

Whataburger plans to provide relief in the form of a food truck in the Houston area and will donate water to local shelters through the Red Cross. It said it currently has 106 locations in the greater Houston area open for drive-thru service only. 

“We’re glad the Whataburger app has been helpful to Houston residents to understand where power is available in the city,” Whataburger president and CEO Ed Nelson told Fortune in a statement. “Keep in mind, the app should only be used as a general idea of power availability. We encourage residents to call local units to see if they are open and operating.”

Texans anointing Whataburger a beacon of knowledge on power outage updates follows an American tradition of fast-food chains being at the center of disaster responses. FEMA has long used the Waffle House Index to determine the intensity of natural disasters. If a Waffle House is open and has its full menu available, it likely has full power.

“If you get there and the Waffle House is closed?” FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said. “That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”

The ‘Energy Capital of the World’ vs. rampant outages

Hurricane Beryl is the third major outage Norton has navigated this year, some because of extreme weather, and others because of freak accidents. The frequency of these outages has taught Norton and his fellow Texans to prepare for the worse.

“The lines for the gas stations are still a block long because people are running out of gas for their generators,” he said, before hanging up so he could place his Whataburger order. 

Texans have had to adjust to the onslaught of outages impacting the state. Since 2019, there have been 293 outages, lasting about 160 minutes each and affecting an average of 172,000 people, according to a 2024 report by Payless Power using data from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). That makes it the state with the most power outages in the country.

It’s not just hurricanes. A freak winter storm in 2021 plunged temperatures in Texas to record lows—below parts of Alaska—and killed hundreds of people across the state. A June 2023 tornado that ripped through East Texas left 200,000 buildings without power and destroyed 200 homes in the small town of Perryton.

There’s some irony to the superlative. Houston has dubbed itself the “Energy Capital of the World,” home to 4,700 energy firms and employing one-third of the nation’s gas and oil extraction jobs. It’s also come under scrutiny for its above-ground power lines prone to toppling due to extreme weather.

“Our (power) infrastructure was built for the weather of the past,” Michael Webber, professor of engineering at the University of Texas, told CNN. “It wasn’t built for the weather of the future, and the weather of the future is already here.”

The whole country is dealing with an outdated grid: 70% of power lines in the U.S., built between the 1960s and ‘70s, are nearing the end of their lifecycle. As patterns of extreme weather increase, so, too, to vulnerabilities to a hobbled grid, Webber warned.

Plans to bury power lines underground have slowly come to fruition. In January, the Energy Department announced $34 million in funding for 12 projects across 11 states to improve the grid. But the changes aren’t always popular. The undertaking is expensive, and a $5.9 billion project to bury the lines to prevent California wildfires was met with resistance from state regulators who balked at its cost.

In Texas, infrastructure could be better prepared to navigate the hurricane-prone area, Norton admitted, though he doesn’t discount the locals’ ability to weather storms.

“Texans get together, and we support each other,” he said. “And that’s what you need to do with any kind of disaster.”

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