Weather 101: The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale

Weather 101

The Saffir-Simpson Scale is designed to rank hurricanes and their expected destruction based on maximum wind speed.

Hurricane Laura roared ashore in southwest Louisiana early Thursday morning. The official landfall was at 1 A.M. CDT on August 27 near Cameron, LA (30 miles south of the city of Lake Charles). Wind gusts over 130-mph were recorded at the Lake Charles airport as the northern eyewall of the storm moved over.

Radar image of Hurricane Laura making landfall in SW Louisiana on August 27 2020.

With maximum sustained winds of 150-mph, Laura became the first category 4 hurricane to ever make landfall in southwest Louisiana. But what makes Laura a category 4 storm and not a 3 or 5? The wind speed on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

Infrared satellite showing the eye of Hurricane Laura passing over Cameron, LA as the storm makes landfall.

Using the storm’s maximum 1-minute wind speed 10 meters (~33 feet) off the ground, the scale is designed to provide a general expectation on the damage expected. Using a 1 to 5 rating, the higher the number, the stronger the storm and more destruction expected.

Non-Major Hurricanes (Category 1-2)

The lowest ranking on the Saffir-Simpson scale is “category 1”. Hurricanes with this ranking have maximum sustained winds between 74-95 mph. “Very dangerous winds will produce some damage” – National Hurricane Center (NHC). Those who experience these conditions can expect roof, shingle, vinyl siding, and gutter damage to well-built homes. Trees with large branches can snap and power outages are very likely as power lines and poles are damaged extensively.

Visible satellite image of Hurricane Hanna (category 1) as it approaches Texas. Hanna made landfall on July 25, 2020 along the Padre Island National Seashore. Image by Lauren Dauphin
Damage caused by Hurricane Hanna in Hanna in Raymondville, TX. Image by NWS Brownsville

Up next, we have a category 2 storm. This means the maximum sustained winds are between 96-110 mph. “Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage” – National Hurricane Center (NHC). At this level, major roof and siding damage can be expected to well-constructed buildings. A lot of trees with shallow roots will have branches snapped or be uprooted. Near-total loss of power with outages lasting days, possibly weeks.

Satellite image of Hurricane Arthur (category 2) developing an eye off the South Carolina coastline in July 2014. Arthur made landfall on July 3, 2011 in North Carolina over Shackleford Banks, between Cape Lookout and Beaufort.
Image by: NWS Newport/Morehead City, NC
Flooding in downtown Manteo, NC cause by Hurricane Arthur’s storm surge and heavy rain.
Image: NWS Newport/Morehead City, NC.

Major Hurricanes (Category 3-5)

Once winds surpass 110 mph, we enter “major hurricane” status. This designation is given because of the potential for significant loss of life and damage to property.

For storms with sustained winds between 111-129 mph, category 3 is the ranking received. “Devastating damage will occur” – National Hurricane Center (NHC). Homes with well-built frames may receive major damage or have their roof decking removed. Many trees will be snapped and downed, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable fore several days to weeks.

Hurricane Fran as it makes landfall in southeast North Carolina on September 5, 1996.
Aerial footage of destruction caused by Hurricane Fran in North Topsail Beach, NC.
Image by Newport/Morehead City, NC

In the middle of the “Major Hurricane Pack”, we have category 4. Hurricanes with maximum sustained winds between 130-156 mph. “Catastrophic damage will occur” – National Hurricane Center (NHC). Homes with well-built frames will sustain severe damage with loss of most of roof destroyed, including some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted throughout the area. Many power poles will be down with power outages lasting weeks. Most of the area could be considered uninhabitable for weeks or months.

Visible satellite of Hurricane Laura’s eye upon final approach to the SW Louisiana coastline on August 26, 2020. Laura made landfall in Cameron, LA in the early morning of August 27, 2020.
Damage in Cameron, LA after Hurricane Laura made landfall. Image: Vicki Walker

Finally, the strongest hurricanes receive the designation of category 5. Any storm with sustained winds at or above 157 mph receive this menacing label. “Catastrophic damage will occur” – National Hurricane Center (NHC). Numerous homes and buildings will be severely damage or destroyed. Trees and power poles will block numerous roadways and isolate neighborhoods. Power outages will last for weeks, maybe even months. In some cases, communities may not be habitable for weeks or even months after the storm.

Hurricane Michael (2018) was the first category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, FL. Image: NWS Tallahassee, FL

It Is Not All About The Wind!

While hurricanes are known for their intense winds and unique eye, it is important to remember hurricanes have many more dangers than just strong winds. No matter what category a storm is, storm surge, tornadoes, torrential rain, and inland flooding are all major hazards during a storm. Sometimes these other threats are more impactful than the wind (take Hurricane Harvey in Houston for example).

Remember, if a storm is threatening your area: monitor the weather often and always listen to your local emergency management officials.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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