Understanding the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale

Hurricanes are powerful natural phenomena which can cause significant damage to property and endanger human lives. Understanding these storms is essential to preparing for them, which is where the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale comes in.

Categorizing hurricanes according to their sustained wind speeds, the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale offers valuable information and insights into the potential impact of hurricanes, including estimating potential property damage.

In this blog, we’ll highlight the difference between tropical storms and hurricanes before overviewing the different categories of hurricanes as delineated by the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.

We’ll also examine additional threats caused by hurricanes and identify why it’s crucial to “harden” your home with high-performance impact doors and windows before a hurricane is bearing down on you.

Hurricanes Vs. Tropical Storms

Before we delve into hurricane categories, we’ll address a frequently asked question: what’s the difference between a hurricane and a tropical storm?

While both are potentially catastrophic weather events with low-pressure centers, their key differences pertain to sustained wind speeds and overall intensity.

Tropical storms have maximum sustained winds ranging between 39 and 73 miles per hour, while hurricanes have sustained winds of 74 miles per hour or higher. Additionally, tropical storms are less defined and concentrated than hurricanes, which means they’re also less intense with less destructive potential.

While tropical storms do not have specific categories, they can intensify and develop into hurricanes under certain atmospheric conditions. Conversely, hurricanes can weaken and downgrade to tropical storms if they encounter less conducive environmental factors.

Regardless of their differences, both storm types require adequate preparedness efforts to ensure the safety of regions, communities, structures, and people.

About the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale

The National Hurricane Center uses the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale to assign a 1-5 rating to every hurricane based entirely on its maximum sustained wind speed. In addition to describing the storm, each rating level also provides estimated potential property damage. 

Here’s an overview of each category, including corresponding wind speeds, predicated potential property damage, and recent examples:

Category 1: Winds of 74-95 mph, 64-82 kt, 119-153 km/h

While Category 1 storms are comparatively weak in terms of hurricane wind speed, they still pose a threat with very dangerous winds. Category 1 hurricanes can cause roof damage to even well-constructed buildings, as well as damage to vinyl siding, shingles, and gutters. Other potential impacts include large branches snapping off, the toppling of trees with shallow roots, and serious damage to power lines and poles that can lead to power outages spanning anywhere from a few hours to several days.

Recent examples of hurricanes that were Category 1 after making landfall include Hurricane Irene (1999) and Hurricane Isaias (2020). All of these storms resulted in localized flooding, property damage, and power outages on the East Coast.

Category 2: Winds of 96-110 mph, 83-95 kt, 154-177 km/h

While still not achieving “major” hurricane status, Category 2 hurricanes come with stronger winds and an increased likelihood of extensive damage, including uprooting trees and damaging roofs and siding. Additionally, down power lines may lead to road closures and lengthy power outages.

Hurricane Sally (2020) made landfall as a strong Category 2 hurricane, bringing with it significant rainfall and flooding in parts of the Gulf Coast region. Hurricane Frances (2004) was also a Category 2 when it made landfall just north of Palm Beach County.

Category 3: Winds of 111-129 mph, 96-112 kt, 178-208 km/h

Category 3 storms mark the transition to “major” hurricanes, with the potential to cause devastating damage. In addition to destroying roof decking, gable ends, and trees, Category 3 hurricanes can also compromise the availability of electricity and water for weeks following the storm.

While many unnamed Category 3 hurricanes have struck South Florida over the past century, more recent examples have included Hurricane Betsy (1965) and Hurricane Jeanne (2004). 

Category 4: Winds of 130-156 mph, 113-136 kt, 209-251 km/h

Extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricanes can cause catastrophic damage, including the complete destruction of structures. In addition to months-long power outages, Category 4 hurricanes may also cause some residential areas to become uninhabitable for weeks or even months.

When Hurricane Ian (2022) made landfall in Florida, it was a Category 4 storm just a few miles per hour short of a Category 5 rating. For residents of Florida, Ian’s impacts were unforgettable. In addition to being the state’s costliest-ever hurricane with a financial toll of $109.5 billion, it also left a massive swath of total destruction in its wake—including a whopping 900 completely destroyed structures in Fort Myers Beach alone—and a death toll of nearly 150 people. Hurricane King (1950) also hit Miami as a Category 4 hurricane. 

Category 5: Winds of 157 mph, 137 kt or higher, 252 km/h or higher

Category 5 hurricanes are the most intense and destructive storms possible. As such, they can cause catastrophic damage to infrastructure with the majority of homes and other structures at risk of complete and total destruction.

Throughout American history, only four storms have made landfall as Category 5 storms, including an unnamed Labor Day Hurricane (1935), Hurricane Camille (1969), Hurricane Andrew (1992), and Hurricane Michael (2018). What else do all of these storms have in common? Their brutal impact was felt in Florida.

Additional Hurricane-Related Dangers

While wind speeds are the primary factor in the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, it’s important to know the additional dangers associated with hurricanes, including the following:

  • Heavy rainfall and flooding. Between torrential rainfall and the slow-moving nature of hurricanes, widespread flooding can occur as drainage systems become overwhelmed.
  • Storm surge. One of the most dangerous aspects of hurricanes (especially in coastal areas), storm surge occurs when strong winds drive ocean water onto the shore, causing sea levels to rise. The result? Devastating coastal flooding, erosion, and destruction of coastal structures. (Much of the widespread devastation along the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina was due to storm surge.)
  • Injuries during storm prep and cleanup. The time before and after hurricanes is also potentially hazardous due to injuries resulting from ladder falls, equipment mishandling, improper use of generators, downed power lines, and contaminated floodwaters.

Proactively Protect Your Home and Its Inhabitants During Hurricanes

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale is a powerful tool for understanding the impact of hurricanes. Which begs the question: What can you do with that information?

While basic safety tips like clearing your yard, turning off power, and having a “go kit” at the ready are important, hardening your home is also an invaluable preventative measure. Enter high performance impact resistant windows and doors.

Wondering just how effective CGI’s high-performance and innovative impact resistant windows and doors are? Watch an impact test here.

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