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Category 1 hurricane? Category 5? What do the numbers really mean?

All eyes are on the movements of Earl and Fiona. What category will the hurricanes be when they hit land? What kind of damage might they inflict?

(And by the way, who picked the names Earl and Fiona? Read about it here.)

Part of the drama of hurricane season revolves around the predicting and changing of the severity – or category – of the storm.

There are a few classification scales that meteorological agencies use to determine the intensity of hurricanes. The Saffir-Simpson scale is used to measure the strength of hurricanes in the North Atlantic Ocean and the North-eastern Pacific Ocean. The scale gets it name from the two men who developed it, civil engineer Herbert Saffir and meteorologist Bob Simpson. It was introduced to the general public in 1973.

There are five categories on the scale, which are distinguished by wind speed. For example, in a category-1 hurricane the maximum wind speed is 96 miles. While in a category-5, the wind speed is above 156. Hurricanes of category-3 and above are known as major hurricanes or supertyphoons.

Since recordkeeping began, only three category-5 storms have hit the U.S. The last was Andrew in 1992.

But the power of a category-1 hurricane should not be downplayed. Category-1 hurricanes can cause significant damage, such as uprooting mature trees, ripping off roof shingles, or even toppling mobile homes.

And there’s no guarantee that a higher category hurricane will inflict more damage. For example, a category-2 that strikes an unprepared metropolitan area might wreak more havoc than a category-4 that hits a rural area. To determine the potential for damage, population density, total rainfall, and local terrain all need to be taken into consideration.

Interestingly, it was decided that for this 2010 hurricane season, the experimental Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale (SSHWS), which is based on the previously used Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, would be used. The new system is based on wind speed and excludes flood ranges and storm surge estimations.

As you hear meteorologists predict where Earl or Fiona might land, you might wonder why hurricanes move in a particular direction. The answer has to do with the bizarre Coriolis effect, which makes the air in storms rotate counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere.

What’s the difference between hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons? Read about that here.

31 Comments

  1. Amy -  August 27, 2012 - 3:15 am

    Katrina was a Category 5 in the Gulf. It lost strength & was a Category 3 when it made landfall.

    Reply
    • Zyeir -  November 10, 2014 - 2:31 am

      Hi

      Reply
  2. Jack03301 -  August 27, 2011 - 7:03 am

    Hurricane Katrina was not a Category 3 or 4.. Katrina was a Category 5… If there was a Category 6 Hurricane, Katrina was almost at that point. Katrina was the reason why the levees broke.. Katrina Is the second Strongest Hurricane that hit the USA.. First one was Camile in 1960′s. I think 62 or 64…

    Reply
  3. Leah-Anne -  January 6, 2011 - 9:15 am

    @ SAF

    Hilarious!!!

    Reply
  4. burger king -  November 29, 2010 - 8:08 am

    hello! i was a person of hurricane katrina! i broke a leg.

    Reply
  5. Dc Loy -  October 12, 2010 - 11:16 am

    These comments are funny and slightly interesting.

    Reply
  6. camcam aka wazzup pplz -  September 8, 2010 - 9:17 am

    KATRINA WAS A CATEGORY 5 PEOPLE, LOOK IT UP ON BING.COM!!!!

    (((get it right)))

    Reply
  7. Saf -  September 6, 2010 - 8:12 pm

    @Annoyed

    Since you already understand sarcasm, grasping the concept of facetiousness shouldn’t be too much of a mental leap for you. Try it! I know you can do it!

    Reply
  8. annoyed -  September 4, 2010 - 3:12 pm

    all hail the inherently wise and omnicient Saf, that mental titan who never needs to ask questions…

    Reply
  9. Saf -  September 3, 2010 - 7:17 am

    Asking questions is for the weak-minded, anyway. Query marks are a direct sign of stupidity.

    Reply
  10. Data Entry India -  September 3, 2010 - 1:14 am

    winds were only 80 miles per minute when it hit New Metropolis. I was lifted in Florida and that is nothing. Right alot of twine and precipitation. What happened to New Beleaguering was not the “hurricane”, but the levies. Ostensibly, they bang never been replaced.our adsense is generating a few present a day .. or a end of day news transmitted to our netmail.

    —————-
    Thanks

    Reply
  11. Curly Hair -  September 2, 2010 - 5:59 pm

    @Saf: Question marks are awesome. What looks absurd is ending a question with a period.

    Reply
  12. to upper case nuts -  September 2, 2010 - 2:52 pm

    The typhoon 7 seems to be gone, and no sign of harricanes here in Tokyo. Successive schorching days appear to continue. Nyan.

    Reply
  13. Saf -  September 2, 2010 - 2:14 pm

    @dictionary.com [sic]

    I, also, cannot understand why you haven’t capitulated to my demands. I wrote them clearly on one of those “HELLO, MY NAME IS…” stickers with a highly-visible black Sharpie®, and wore the sticker quite prominently as I walked past your office one day last fall.

    Also, I commanded you to properly capitalize the “D” in your URL name. Dictionary.com is properly capitalized on your page banners, so it is very sloppy not to have it capitalized somewhere as extrusive as the URL bar. I issued this mandate three months ago, when I wrote it on one of those little comment cards at Pizza Hut and dropped it in the suggestions box with SPECIFIC INSTRUCTIONS to forward it to the dictionary.com staff, and you STILL haven’t done anything about it. Ugh, even using that lower-case D in a deriding way is extremely inelegant.

    I’d also like to point out (for no particular reason) that I eschew the use of question marks. They look absurd. Also, I don’t own a television, and I only read Proust.

    Reply
  14. word of the day -  September 2, 2010 - 12:42 pm

    @ dictionary.com
    There is no forum to post comments for word of the day, so i am putting up the comment here. I do not like to visit twitter and facebook which are sheer nonsense sites. So create a forum for word of the the day under the word itself.

    I was reading the Word of the Day archives and found that certain words are being repeated Eg; The word of the day on 3rd May 1999 and 11th June 2006 is the same:emolument. Please stick to new words only.

    There are no flashcards or other techniques available on the website that engage ardent logophiles. I have given this as a suggestion in your questionaire. You havent done anything about it.

    Reply
  15. #1 Skillet fan -  September 2, 2010 - 12:36 pm

    Hurricane Katrina was a category 4 hurricane

    Reply
  16. patrick -  September 2, 2010 - 11:00 am

    WHY IS IT THAT THESE TROPICAL TYPHOON INTENSIFY IN WARM WATER?

    Reply
  17. sweetpea -  September 2, 2010 - 11:00 am

    Katrina was a category 3

    Reply
  18. Robert S. -  September 2, 2010 - 10:49 am

    A category 5 hurricane is huge, with winds over 150 mph. Think of Katrina.

    Reply
  19. Krystal -  September 2, 2010 - 10:39 am

    Katrina’s winds were only 80 miles per hour when it hit New Orleans. I was raised in Florida and that is nothing. Just alot of wind and rain. What happened to New Orleans was not the “hurricane”, but the levies. Apparently, they have never been replaced.

    Reply
  20. Saf -  September 2, 2010 - 9:55 am

    @ Will C.

    “Catty-corner” comes from an obsolete meaning of the word ‘Cater,’ which was “to move or set diagonally.” I think it’s a purely American coinage.

    Reply
  21. Guest -  September 2, 2010 - 9:20 am

    Does anyone know what category Katrina was?

    Reply
  22. Will C. -  September 2, 2010 - 7:36 am

    I’m curious where the word “catty-corner” comes from???

    Reply
  23. ummmmm ya know -  September 2, 2010 - 5:53 am

    Sorry i ment to say about the links……….thats funny to me!!!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  24. Daniel -  September 2, 2010 - 5:35 am

    Do you know what the first hurricane said to Hurricane Fiona?

    “My name is Earl”

    Reply
  25. a muscle stretcher -  September 2, 2010 - 5:28 am

    “If I had flukes I’d always be afraid that someone would try to defluke me.”–Categorize this instead of harricanes.

    Reply
  26. Edwinoel Tanglao -  September 1, 2010 - 9:32 pm

    Very interesting. 96mph winds for a category-1 hurricane is already a strong one that’s why it can cause a lot of damage. Its effect is comparable to a very strong typhoon in Asia, with more than 150mph winds and it is usually devastating.

    Reply
  27. PALMS | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  September 1, 2010 - 9:00 pm

    [...] is our favorite when in the “CATEGORY” of watching storms. — We found it very helpful when living in Willmington, NC — That [...]

    Reply
  28. haisam -  September 1, 2010 - 5:34 pm

    in 2005 when Katrina stroke the area of Mexico gulf
    there was a huge casino in the shape of huge old ship
    the strength of wind and water stir this ship from its
    position in water to highway 90
    this distance about 500 hundred meter

    Reply
  29. Nathan -  September 1, 2010 - 5:28 pm

    Uh oh…Links are missing. Perhaps Earl blew them away?

    Reply

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