hsaffir.jpgHerbert Saffir, a structural engineer who helped design the category system for describing the strength of hurricanes, died on Nov. 21 from a heart attack. He was 90.

The native New Yorker earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Georgia Tech, then moved to South Florida to work as an assistant county engineer. Although he would eventually design 50 bridges, the location of his new home sparked a life-long interest in hurricanes. Saffir soon immersed himself in the study of the weather phenomenon and its effects on buildings. This knowledge helped him write and unify building codes in the area.

In 1969, the United Nations asked Saffir to determine how the organization could help reduce wind damage to low-cost buildings worldwide. In response, he invented a scale that would measure the intensity of a storm, and thus determine the kind of damage it would do to an area.

Saffir’s scale, which ranked hurricanes from 1 to 5, were based on sustained wind speeds and the corresponding damage they caused. A Category 1 storm, for example, would have sustained winds of 74 to 95 mph. These conditions could uproot trees and blow over unanchored mobile homes. A Category 5 storm, which has sustained winds greater than 155 mph, could completely destroy structures in the storm’s path, no matter how well they are engineered. Before Saffir devised his scale, meteorologists simply described hurricanes as “major” or “minor” storms.

In the 1970s, Robert H. Simpson, then director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center, expanded Saffir’s scale to include possible storm-surge heights for each category. The revised system, known as the Saffir-Simpson scale became the standard by which all Atlantic Ocean-based hurricanes are rated.

During the final years of his life, Saffir continued to work as a structural engineer in South Florida. An advocate of stronger building codes in hurricane-prone areas, he also penned numerous articles on how to design buildings with high wind resistance and lobbied for tougher enforcement of building codes.