The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale rates a hurricane’s strength from one to five. A hurricane’s sustained wind speed determines a hurricane’s category. This helps estimate potential property damage along a hurricane’s path.

A hurricane is a tropical cyclone. Tropical cyclones are strong, rotating storms that begin over tropical oceans and bring strong winds and heavy rain. When a tropical cyclone in the northeastern Pacific or North Atlantic ocean reaches winds speeds of 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour, it’s called a hurricane. Tropical cyclones in the northwest Pacific Ocean are called typhoons.

Meteorologists use the Saffir Simpson scale to rank tropical cyclones in the northeastern Pacific Ocean and North Atlantic Ocean. This includes the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. Category three, four, and five hurricanes are major hurricanes and cause the most damage in the U.S. Yet category one and two hurricanes can still inflict major destruction.

The scale doesn’t include hurricane-related damage from storm surges, floods, and tornadoes. One of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history (as well as the costliest) was Katrina, which hit Louisiana in August 2005 at category three strength.  Katrina took the lives of more than 1,500 people. Many of those deaths were from the hurricane’s destructive storm surge.

Here are the category specifics:

Category One: Wind speeds between 119–153 kilometers per hour (74–95 mph)

Very dangerous winds will produce some damage. Homes will have roof damage, and large branches of trees will fall to the ground. Power lines and poles may be damaged, causing power outages that could last between a few and several days.

Category Two: Wind speeds between 154–177 kilometers per hour (96–110 mph)

Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage. Well-built homes could have major roof damage and many shallowly rooted trees will be uprooted and block roads. Power outages could last anywhere between several days to weeks.

Category Three: Wind speeds between 178–208 kilometers per hour (111–129 mph)

High winds will cause devastating damage. Well-built homes may have extensive roof damage, and many trees will be uprooted or snapped, blocking roads. Utilities such as electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks.

Category Four: Wind speeds between 209–251 kilometers per hour (130–156 mph)

Catastrophic damage will occur. Homes may lose most of their roofs and some exterior walls, and most trees will be uprooted or snapped. Fallen power poles and trees will isolate residential areas. Power outages may last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.

Category Five: Wind speeds greater than or equal to 252 kilometers per hour (157 mph)

Winds at this speed will cause catastrophic damage. Many homes will be devastated, with total roof failure and collapsed walls. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.

 

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale

A home in Fort Lauderdale experiences strong winds and flooding from Hurricane Irma. South Florida felt some of the force from Hurricane Irma but it was not devastated in the same way as the Caribbean Islands. 

hurricane
Noun

tropical storm with wind speeds of at least 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour. Hurricanes are the same thing as typhoons, but usually located in the Atlantic Ocean region.

Saffir Simpson scale
Noun

system that classifies hurricane strength, from Category 1 (weakest) to Category 5 (strongest).

Noun

abnormal rise in sea level accompanying a hurricane or other intense storm. Also called a storm tide.

tornado
Noun

a violently rotating column of air that forms at the bottom of a cloud and touches the ground.

tropical cyclone
Noun

low-pressure system that develops over tropical or subtropical waters and has a warm core, a closed wind circulation, and a center or “eye.” Tropical depressions, tropical storms, and hurricanes are all tropical cyclones.

typhoon
Noun

tropical storm with wind speeds of at least 74 miles (119 kilometers) per hour. Typhoons are the same thing as hurricanes, but usually located in the Pacific or Indian Ocean region.