Most Floridians are familiar with the categorization of hurricanes as defined by the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale; Category 1 is the weakest and Category 5 is the strongest. Any serious storm under the Category 1 speed minimum is a tropical storm or tropical depression.
There is always a danger that people don’t take a storm seriously because it’s just a Category 1, which they equate with “weak.” That’s a somewhat dangerous way to think about hurricanes. Any hurricane, even a Category 1, should still be taken seriously.
To reach Category 1 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, a storm needs to sustain at least 74 mph winds, which is enough to damage roofs, siding and gutters. Trees can be toppled (sometimes onto houses or cars or into roads) and create dangerous situations. Power is also likely to be lost in areas affected by Category 1 storms, especially where it makes landfall.
Category 2 (96 mph to 100 mph) pose similar risks, just with a larger scale of damage. Power could potentially be knocked out further across the affected area.
Category 3 (111 mph to 129 mph) and higher are all considered “major” hurricanes by the National Hurricane Center. This is where even well-built houses can sustain structural damage and electricity can be knocked out for days or weeks.
Category 4 (130 mph to 156 mph) and Category 5 (157 mph or higher) can leave people isolated for days or weeks due to fallen trees and power lines blocking emergency personnel from quickly reaching affected areas. The NOAA says it’s possible for areas to be left uninhabitable for months due to loss of power, destroyed or obstructed roads and a total loss of basic services.
It’s worth noting that peak 1-minute sustained wind speed – the measure by which category is determined per the Saffir-Simpson Scale – usually drops by a full category once a storm reaches roughly a kilometer inland. If a storm makes landing as a Category 3 it will likely be at Category 2 speeds a half a mile or so inland.
NOAA uses the example of Hurricane Wilma in 2005. It made landfall in Florida as a Category 3, but Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties likely experienced Category 1 or 2 conditions once the hurricane reached them four hours later.
The wind scale was developed by meteorologist Bob Simpson and wind engineer Herb Saffir. They came up with the scale in the early ‘70s.
Simpson was the director of the National Hurricane Center from 1967 through 1973. He knew the dangers of hurricanes firsthand, surviving through a 1919 hurricane in Corpus Christi (his family had to swim three blocks to shelter at a nearby courthouse).
The main purpose of the scale was to help decision makers and residents gauge their response to an incoming storm. The scale’s main drawback is that it just measures wind.
Although wind strength is sometimes indicative of the severity of factors like rainfall and storm surge, there’s not exactly a direct, consistent correlation between these other hurricane attributes and wind intensity.
When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico the highest 1-minute sustained windspeed clocked in at 200 mph (well over the Category 5 threshold). The island’s power grid had already been devastated weeks earlier by Hurricane Irma (nearly 80,000 islanders were still without power when Hurricane Maria made landfall).
Hurricane Maria essentially finished what Hurricane Irma started, knocking over roughly 80 percent of the island’s power poles and leaving the island’s nearly three and a half million residents without power for the next year. (The government claimed the last neighborhood without power had electricity restored 328 days after Hurricane Maria’s landfall.)
Hurricane Opal (Category 4, max sustained windspeed recorded at 150 mph) snapped about 5,000 power lines, knocked over 1,200 telephone poles and took down roughly 4,000 trees just in the Atlanta metro area. About 2.6 million residents lost power – some of them for up to a week after the storm. Some homes on Okaloosa Island in the Florida Panhandle were under three to 10 feet of storm surge.
Hurricane Andrew (Category 5, max sustained winds recorded at 175 mph) is still considered the most destructive hurricane to make landfall in Florida. When Floridians think of Category 5 storms, they’re often using Hurricane Andrew as a reference.
The roughly 1.2 million Floridians that evacuated ahead of Hurricane Andrew created what still might be the largest traffic jam in the state’s history. That storm knocked out power for about 1.4 million people, and it’s believed to have left approximately 177,000 people in Louisiana, Florida and the Bahamas temporary homeless.
Major hurricanes can also have significant destructive impacts on local environments. Andrew leveled about 70,000 acres of trees in the Florida Everglades and is estimated to have killed about 182 million freshwater fish.
Smaller hurricanes aren’t without risks. Hurricane Sally (Category 2, max sustained windspeed recorded at 105 mph) landed between Pensacola, Florida and Mobile, Alabama in September 2020 and is blamed for the deaths of eight people. Although it made landfall in a relatively sparsely populated section of the Gulf Coast, it is still estimated to have caused $5 billion of damages, in part due to the tornadoes it spawned. Tiger Point in Santa Rosa County is estimated to have received 36 inches of rain and Belleview in Escambia County got inundated with 30 inches of rain. Pensacola, one of the few metro areas to be heavily impacted by Hurricane Sally, saw 5.6 feet of storm surge flooding and 24 inches of rain.
These smaller storms on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, like Hurricane Sally, are easy for some people to dismiss because they seem weaker by comparison, but they can be equally dangerous for homes and businesses in their path.
Any named storm, whether it’s Category 1 or Category 5 – or even a tropical storm – should be taken seriously.