An Overview on using the Saffir Simpson Hurricane Scale

A tropical depression is not what you get from a bad vacation in the Caribbean! It is the precursor to some of the summer’s most violent weather- hurricanes.   Depending on the level of wind intensity, people and property are at risk.   Having tools to predict and track these deadly storms is important. One of the ways that hurricanes are measured is by the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. By using this scale, millions of lives and billions of dollars in property are saved each year.

The Saffir Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale

Similar in concept to the Richter Scale, the Saffir–Simpson Wind Scale is a classification system for storms in the Western Hemisphere.  Developed in the 1970s, this system divides hurricanes which have sustained wind speeds greater than 74 miles per hour (119 kilometers per hour) into five set categories.  The categories are distinguishable by wind speeds, storm surge, and potential for flooding.  

The Saffir-Simpson Categories

Category 1 is the first class on the scale and is used for those tropical cycles with wind speeds of 74 to 95 miles per hour.  This class of Hurricane, which includes the recent Hurricane Hanna, causes minimal damage. 

The second class, Category 2, marks those storms with minimal wind speeds of 96 miles per hour and maximum wind speeds of 110 miles per hour.  This class of storm can cause damage to poorly constructed buildings.  Recent Hurricane Alma falls into this class.

Storms with wind speeds between 111 to 130 miles per hour are designated as Category 3.  Storms of this intensity can cause serious damage and destroy small buildings and cause flooding.   Hurricane Bertha and Hurricane Katrina are examples of a tropical cyclone in this category.

With winds ranging from 131 to 155 miles per hour, Category 4 is one the more intense classes on the scale.  These tropical storms cause incredible devastation and have destroyed homes and flooded towns. 

Category 5 is the last class on the scale and is used for those storms with sustained winds of more than 156 miles per hour.  Flooding, property damage and death are all risks with this class of storm.  Some of the deadliest storms in United States history- Andrew, Camille, and Gilbert- were storms in this class.  

Using the Scale

The Saffir Simpson Wind Scale is considered a disaster-potential tool for forecasters. Scientists and forecasters use the scale to not only measure hurricane winds, but to also determine the level of preparedness and possible amount of damage a storm may bring.

For Category 1 Hurricanes, the expectation is that the storm winds could break tree branches and possibly blow down power lines. This is a storm that may have 4-5 foot flood surges.  Being the lowest level hurricane, basic preparedness may be sufficient.  People should cover doors, bring in outdoor furniture, and have a storm survival kit handy in case electrical power is lost.

Having small trees blown down or large branches broken is a normal occurrence in Category 2 storms.  For a hurricane of this strength, people may experience damage to roofs and chimneys.  Storm kits should include battery operated radios and families should make sure they have sufficient food and drinking water.

For the more intense storms such as Category 3s to Category 5s, caution is key.  These storms can damage buildings, strip trees, flood roads.  Monitoring radio and television alerts will be crucial.  With the higher storm classes, storm surges can get over 9 feet, can cause billions of dollars of damage and force peopleto evacuate their homes. For these advisories, residents should make sure their cars are operating properly and that a safety plan is in place for your children and pets.

Understanding the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is not complicated; however, the method for measuring hurricane wind strength can help residents prepare for storms and possibly save lives and property.