The Saffir-Simpson Scale: Hurricane Categories Explained

Every hurricane season, we see tropical systems become Category 1, Category 2, Category 3, and so on. What does this mean exactly?

These categories are from the Saffir-Simpson scale. It is a hurricane classification system based on wind speed, and they can help predict potential outcomes for cities that get in the way of a tropical system.


What you need to know

  • The strength of a hurricane is based on the wind speed.
  • Once a hurricane becomes a category 3 or higher, it is classified as a major hurricane.
  • The hurricane development area is shifting for July.

Let’s break these categories down to get a better understanding of what they all mean.

Category 1

New Orleans floods from Hurricane Katrina

The first on our list is Category 1. These hurricanes can produce winds from 74 to 95 mph.

With a Category 1 hurricane, very dangerous winds are expected. Roofs, shingles and gutters of well-built houses can be damaged.

Branches of trees can break, power lines can be damaged, which in turn would lead to power outages.

Heavy, constant rainfall can also lead to flooding.

While this is first on our list, a Category 1 hurricane should not be taken lightly. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina entered Category 1 and caused $ 125 billion in damage. Much of the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi was destroyed and took years to recover.

Category 2

Hurricane Floyd engulfs Franklin, Virgina.

Next on our list is Category 2. Hurricanes in the Category 2 range produce winds from 96 to 110 mph.

These winds are extremely dangerous. Well-built houses can suffer major roof and facade damage. Shallow rooted trees can break or be uprooted.

Power outages are expected and can take several days to weeks.

In 1999, Hurricane Floyd brought devastating effects to the North Carolina coast when it landed near Cape Fear as Category 2.

Floyd was especially remembered for his rainfall totaling 10 to 24 inches across much of eastern North and South Carolina. Flooding became a major problem and demanded many lives and homes. Harmful chemicals, sewage and animal waste also polluted rivers due to flooding.

Category 3

The Chicopee Falls Bridge over the Connecticut River is pushed downstream due to flooding from the Great New England Hurricane.

Hurricanes classified as Category 3 will produce winds from 111 to 129 mph.

Any category 3 or higher system is considered a major hurricane. Expect devastating damage from these powerful hurricanes.

Well-built homes are seriously damaged by roofs and cladding. Many trees can be cut and uprooted. Expect roads to be blocked and travel to be limited.

Electricity and water can be scarce for several days or weeks.

An example of a Category 3 is the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 that landed on Long Island.

Storm surge reached nearly 17 feet in some areas, destroying many homes. Montauk has been temporarily transformed into an island.

Further inland, the hurricane made a second Category 3 landfall between Bridgeport and New Haven. Hundreds of lives were lost here with many more injured.

Category 4

People are evacuating a Houston neighborhood from the flood of Hurricane Harvey

Then there is a Category 4. These major hurricanes produce wind from 130 to 156 mph.

Expect catastrophic damage.

Well-built homes will be seriously damaged by the loss of roofs and exterior walls.

Electricity poles and trees are toppled and can isolate many residential areas. Power outages can last for weeks or months.

Most of the area is uninhabitable for weeks or months.

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall along the Texas coast as a Category 4 where Harvey lingered for days. Harvey caused heavy rains and devastating floods.

The storm surge over the coast reached more than 12 feet above sea level. Many homes were destroyed and tens of thousands of people had to be saved.

Category 5

A boat was washed up in Miami by Hurricane Andrew.

A Category 5 hurricane comes in as the strongest on our list of wind speeds of 157 mph or higher.

Expect catastrophic damage.

A large number of framed houses will be destroyed with completely disappeared roofs and collapsed walls.

Many trees and electricity poles are cut down, isolating many residential areas. Power cuts can last for months.

Most of the area is uninhabitable for weeks or months.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew came ashore as Category 5 in South Florida, where winds proved to be the leading cause of destruction.

Neighborhoods were flattened and thousands of homes lost roofs.

Andrew caused more than $ 27 billion in damage. It was this storm that led to better house building practices.

Be prepared

Requirements for a preparedness package.

In addition to strong winds, rain and floods, hurricanes can have much more impact. Severe weather is a major problem with hurricanes. Many tornadoes are often seen in these tropical systems as they make their way on land.

Water spouts and rip currents can also pose major threats to hurricanes.

Make sure you have a hurricane prep kit on hand before a hurricane hits your area.

Typically, activity is at the lower end of the spectrum in the month of June before the Atlantic hurricane season. All storms that do develop will usually develop off the coast of the Yucat√°n Peninsula.

The activity increases slightly more during the month of July, where storms are usually produced in the Eastern Caribbean.

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