WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Since the 1950s, meteorologists have categorized hurricane intensity with the Saffir-Simpson Scale. The scale has utility, but it also has many shortcomings. Here, we will refamiliarize you with the Category 1 through 5 Saffir-Simpson Scale. We will also argue why you need to look past a particular storm's cursory category to gauge its true severity.
THE SCALE: A QUICK REFRESHER
Recall that the Saffir-Simpson Scale rolls a single hurricane metric - maximum sustained wind speed - into five categories:
- Category 1 hurricanes feature 74-95 mph winds.
- Category 2 hurricanes feature 96-110 mph winds.
- Category 3 hurricanes feature 111-129 mph winds.
- Category 4 hurricanes feature 130-155 mph winds.
- Category 5 hurricanes feature maximum sustained winds in excess of 156 mph.
Category 2 hurricanes are usually more destructive than Category 1 hurricanes, 3s are usually worse than 2s, etc.
Simple, right? Sure! But, perhaps too simple...
HURRICANES: MUCH MORE THAN WIND
The list of hurricane hazards not included in the Saffir-Simpson Scale is extensive:
- maximum wind *gusts*
- tornado potential
- rainfall potential
- flash flood potential
- river flood potential
- storm surge potential
- size and symmetry of storm
- storm speed and duration
- landfall approach angle
Occasionally, a catastrophic hurricane will sport a deceptively low Saffir-Simpson category. Hurricane Florence did...
FLORENCE: “ONLY A CATEGORY 1”?
History will correctly tag Hurricane Florence of September 2018 as a relatively minimal Category 1 storm since it featured maximum sustained winds of “only” 90 mph at its Wrightsville Beach landfall.
But, across the Carolinas, Florence killed at least 30 people and inflicted more than $20B in damage. And in the Cape Fear Region, Florence will be remembered as one of the worst - if not the worst - hurricanes of all time.
- a 105 mph wind gust at Wilmington - the Port City’s second highest on record. Stronger than Fran and Hazel...
- brief but violent tornadoes on three consecutive days.
- 23 inches of rain at Wilmington and up to 36 inches near Elizabethtown.
- numerous spells of life-threatening flash flooding.
- record flooding on the Lumber, Cape Fear, Black, Northeast Cape Fear, and other rivers. Worse then Matthew and Floyd...
- damaging storm surge along Topsail Island and even higher surges just to the north around New Bern and Belhaven.
Florence was also a large and excruciatingly slow-moving storm that approached the coast at a particularly perilous 90-degree angle.
BOTTOM LINE: LOOK PAST THE CATEGORY
Florence, like no other storm in Cape Fear Region history, showed how there’s so much more to a hurricane than its Saffir-Simpson category. So please be a savvy weather consumer and, next time a storm threatens, look to your First Alert Weather Team to go past these often deceptive storm labels and into specific, impact-based forecasts! We’ll have you covered!