Herbert Saffir, Creator of Hurricane Intensity Scale, Dies at 90

Herbert Saffir, an engineer who created the five-category system used to describe hurricane strength and warn millions of an approaching storm's danger, has died. He was 90.

Saffir died Wednesday of complications from surgery, said his son, Richard Saffir.

A structural engineer, Saffir created his scale in 1969 — laying out for the first time what kind of damage could be expected from an approaching hurricane. It has since become the definitive way to describe intensity for storms that form in the Atlantic and parts of the Pacific. Before the scale, hurricanes were simply described as major or minor.

Saffir's innovation was ranking storm destruction by type, from Category 1 — where trees and unanchored mobile homes receive the primary damage — to Category 5 — the complete failure of roofs and some structures. The five descriptions of destruction were then matched with the sustained wind speeds that would produce the corresponding damage.

Saffir's scale was expanded by former National Hurricane Center director Robert H. Simpson and became known as the Saffir-Simpson scale in the 1970s. The scale is now so well known that many coastal residents toss off shorthand like "Cat. 1" and few need to be told that it refers to Saffir and Simpson's creation.

Simpson, 95, said the system was invaluable in helping him communicate the power of an approaching storm.

"We needed that type of thing desperately at the time," he said in a phone interview Thursday from his home in Washington, D.C.

In an interview earlier this year, Simpson said he had a hard time before the scale explaining the kinds of damage each storm could cause.

"I couldn't tell the Salvation Army, for example, how much and what materials they should be shipping. The scale gave them a much better handle on that," said Simpson, whose contribution was adding possible storm surge heights for each category.

Saffir was born in New York in 1917. He graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in civil engineering in 1940 and then served in World War II, later moving to South Florida to become a county engineer.

Because of the area's vulnerability to hurricanes, Saffir quickly became an expert in how hurricane-force winds affect buildings. He helped write and unify building codes in South Florida.

Saffir began working on an intensity scale in 1969 as part of a United Nations project. He had been asked how the U.N. could lessen hurricane damage to low-cost buildings worldwide. To help officials understand the full range of hurricane damage, Saffir proposed rating storms from one through five. Scales for rating earthquake damage were already well known, and Saffir believed hurricanes needed their own system of ranking.

He presented his system to Simpson, who began to use the rankings internally and later for a weather report meant largely for emergency agencies. The scale was so useful, however, others quickly adopted it.

It was later used for public hurricane forecasts, and each man's name was later attached.

Still, Saffir didn't talk about the scale much, his son said. While his mother and sister sometimes got upset when the category system was referred to without Saffir or Simpson's name, "It wouldn't seem to bother him," his son said.

While Saffir became known for the scale, he continued to work as a structural engineer at his Coral Gables office until he went into the hospital four weeks ago, his son said. He also traveled to inspect storm damage, even producing reports on the performance of structures during 2005's Hurricane Katrina.

Despite devoting much of his life to thinking about and preparing buildings for hurricanes, Saffir acknowledged earlier this year that his own home was not completely protected from a storm with hurricane shutters. He had done studies on the glass in the windows and found it was relatively shatterproof, he said. At the same time, he told The Associated Press, "I confess I only have partial shutters."

Saffir's wife, Sarah, preceded him in death. Besides his son, he is survived by daughter Barbara Saffir.