"Category Five": How a Hurricane Yardstick Came to Be

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
December 20, 2005

The stormy 2005 hurricane season has pushed new phrases into Americans' everyday speech. News reporters now refer to "Category Five political scandals." A vacuum cleaner commercial boasts that the machine "has the suction power of a Category Two hurricane."

The bluster refers to the Saffir-Simpson scale, which ranks hurricanes from one to five based on their wind speeds and destructive potential.

The scale was devised about 35 years ago by engineer Herbert Saffir and meteorologist Robert Simpson. At the time, Simpson directed the National Hurricane Center in Miami and Saffir ran his own engineering firm in neighboring Coral Gables.

Simpson and Saffir both chuckled when asked about the recent fame of their rating scale. But they also were gratified that their brainchild had found its way into popular speech.

"People are looking for yardsticks," Simpson said. "Our language has demonstrated the use of many expressions that started out to be used for one phenomenon, then were used to refer to many other things."

Saffir said he's "very pleased that the public is aware of the scale and can see the difference between a Category One and a Category Five storm. That's extremely important."

Planning Tool

Saffir and Simpson created the scale to help local relief agencies and emergency management officials better prepare for approaching hurricanes. Until recently, the scale was mostly known to meteorologists and officials at emergency management and relief agencies.

But the unprecedented 2005 hurricane season—the most active and expensive on record—made the Saffir-Simpson scale's ranking system a household phrase.

Four powerful hurricanes ranking Category Three or higher made landfall on the U.S. Gulf Coast between July and October. And the world's attention was focused on the epic Hurricane Katrina as it climbed rapidly up the scale before virtually destroying New Orleans and parts of the Mississippi Gulf Coast on August 29.

When politicians started talking about a "Category Five budget crisis" soon after Katrina, they were discovering what weather professionals have known for a long time.

"It's a great tool for emergency management people as well as for us to pass on information to the public," said Randy McKee, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Mobile, Alabama.

Continued on Next Page >>


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