Q&A with Herbert Saffir

Saffir helped develop the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale

By Ann Carter
Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board Member
June 24 2001

HERBERT S. SAFFIR: Born in New York City in 1917. Married to Sarah Young since 1941. Two grown children. Graduated Georgia Tech in 1940 with a B.S. in civil engineering. Came to what was then Dade County, Fla., in 1947 to be assistant county engineer. Set up his own consulting firm in Coral Gables, Fla., in 1959. In 1969, the United Nations commissioned a study of windstorm damage on low-cost housing, leading Saffir to develop a scale to measure hurricanes. Robert Simpson, then-director of the National Hurricane Center, added in the damage done by storm surge, resulting in the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. At age 83, Saffir maintains an engineering office in Coral Gables, Fla.

Q. As a structural engineer, how did you decide to investigate windstorms — as opposed to earthquakes or some other natural phenomenon?

A. It started when I came down here (in 1947) as assistant county engineer for what was Dade County then. I had responsibility for doing some of the engineering for the building code at that time. The building code was really not up to the state of the art as it should be, and I worked on it. Of course, one of the facts of life down here is hurricanes.

The building code is the place where the planning for hurricanes really takes place. It doesn’t come into the Red Cross publication about bringing your garbage cans in and that type of stuff, the lawn furniture. But the fundamental basis for starting to plan for hurricanes is in the building code. It sets forth the rules and standards and the types of methods of structures to use for resisting windstorm. So that was my first involvement in building codes and hurricane-resistant structures.

Most of the building code work was pushed along by hurricanes in 1926. There was no type of building code that was of any value down here. The devastation was tremendous. In fact, by present-day dollars, the 1926 storm was much worse than Hurricane Andrew.

Each hurricane that came in was an impetus for revising and making the building codes better. In 1960, Donna came up the coast and that was the first time we set up requirements in the building code (for) things like windows, glass, sliding glass doors, that type of thing. Each time a hurricane came in, there were new things that showed up. Just like happened with Andrew — that showed up a lot of deficiencies.

One of the important things about building codes is that architects and engineers, who are the professionals in the building industry, don’t really set up their own criteria for every building they design. They set up, obviously, space requirements and things like that. But the structural engineering requirements for stresses, for wind loadings, for types of floor loadings and roof loadings are all set up in the building code. So the building code is extremely important because it actually does most of the design, especially for one-story residences.

The way I got into the hurricane scale, is back in the ’70s I had a commission from the United Nations, of all people. They wanted a study on low-cost housing throughout the world that was subject to tropical cyclones, hurricanes. They’re the same in India and Australia and Japan and Korea and South Florida, even though they all have different names. And that’s when I got into setting forth rules for buildings, small buildings, residential buildings, and I also set up the hurricane scale because there was no scale that corresponded to the earthquake scales. The scale that I set up was based on the possible structural damage that you could have from each category of storm going from 75 mph, which was the minimum type of storm, up to 155 mph. I gave the scale to the National Hurricane Center for their use. Bob Simpson, who was the director of the hurricane center at the time, added a possible tidal surge, storm surge, possible flooding for each category.

Now the emergency management people tell me they don’t know how they got along without the scale. They use it as far as Australia, in modified shape.

Q. Recently they’ve been trying to create a statewide building code. There were protests, saying South Florida is the only part of the state that needs a stricter code. Do you feel that’s true?

A. No, absolutely not. You can have hurricanes strike on the West [Gulf] Coast, you can have them strike as far north as Panama City, Pensacola. In fact, one of the worst hurricanes that we investigated was Eloise that hit back in [1975]. You can have them anywhere in the state.

However, I think that South Florida, Miami-Dade County, Broward County, Monroe County do have the greatest expectation, the greatest probability of having storms. I was a consultant on the big Vertical Assembly Building [where the Saturn V rockets for the Apollo project were put together]. I set up a design storm for that structure, 130 mph at the base, with increases as you went up in height. Yet they’ve been untouched. That was a case of an area like that not being hit head-on by a storm, when a structure was designed [for it]. You might say it was a waste of money; then again, next year, you might have [a storm].

Q. One of the arguments made during the debate over a statewide building code was that the cost of housing would increase to the point where the average middle-class wage-earner wouldn’t be able to afford a home. Will it?

A. Whenever you adopt tougher standards, you’re going to increase the cost of construction. There’s no getting away from that. You can design for a nuclear blast. You could have designed the federal building in Oklahoma City to resist the bomb blast if you had wanted to put the money into it. We made estimates here in Miami-Dade County, and our pretty detailed estimates for one- and two-story residences showed you would increase [the cost] by about 5 percent. So we accepted it, you would have to live with that.

But it’s not going to go to some of the figures that I saw in the papers; different quotations had figures as high as 25 percent. You have to have a shelter, and most of the cost of the building is really not in the structure anyway; it’s in the finishing, plumbing, electrical, that type of thing.

Q. One of the weaknesses that was exposed by Andrew was that there was a code that wasn’t being followed.

A. Absolutely. It wasn’t being followed.

Andrew was a storm that exceeded the design storm that we used. In fact, it still exceeds the design storm that we use and that the state building code would use. We really aren’t taking care of every possible eventuality.

There was a long period of complacency. Also, to a builder, to a contractor, time is money. They’re always in a rush to get a job finished.

Q. Because there’s such a variation in a storm’s strength, does that contribute to the attitude that there’s nothing to worry about?

A. People who lived in Miami when Andrew came through the Homestead area probably felt they had been through a bad storm. They may have had winds of even as high as 100 mph. As the wind increases, the force of the wind goes up geometrically, as a square of the increase. So you can see, if you double the wind velocity, you’re going to get four times as much force blowing on the house.

We’re eventually going to have a worse situation than Andrew. There’s no getting away from it. We’re going to have a storm that strikes Lauderdale, for instance, just south of the downtown area, with the bulk of the wind maximizing right in the downtown area. Or the same thing with Miami. It’s going to happen sooner or later. Maybe not for 50 more years, but we will get a storm like that.

Q. How do you feel about evacuating people out of their homes as a storm approaches?

A. If you’re in an area of tidal surge, or possible tidal surge — like in Miami, most of the area east of U.S. 1 is in an area of tidal surge — you should evacuate. The problem is that in a Category 1 or Category 2 storm, there’s no need to evacuate even the beach area, in Miami-Dade County or Broward County. In a Category 1 or 2 storm, you probably won’t have any kind of real flooding there, so if you do evacuate, you’re going to have a job getting people out. In fact, you’re not going to get ‘em out with [these storms]. They’re not going to leave.

Q. Your scale was designed to deal with wind and storm surge. Do you feel that the amount of rain being unleashed by a storm should be considered as a damage factor?

A. Certainly you want to know about the amount of rain that a storm is going to have, but it’s difficult to really categorize it as far as different velocities go and as far as tidal surge goes. Tidal surge basically is the wind blowing up the water, although the astronomic tide and the lowering of pressure have something to do with it also. The weather service does attempt, and I think they do the best they can, to advise that rainfall is coming with any type of storm, whether it’s a hurricane or any type of storm. Flooding is possible. Of course, the local area is what decides if you’re going to have flooding or not. [After a hurricane in 1948], everything west of Red Road looked like Biscayne Bay. It was completely under water. Now, of course, we’re building on types of marginal land. The Tamiami Canal, where I used to take my kid fishing, it’s got housing developments all the way out there. And those people are asking for flood relief. They’re in a bad position in a certain type of storm.

Q. Do you think the technology to see the storm approaching affects our tendency to be complacent?

A. In some ways, it’s dangerous because the technology isn’t always correct. They use eight or nine different computer models, and they all give relatively different answers and some of the answers are really at variance with each other. It’s a little dangerous. I wouldn’t really want to depend on any kind of action to take based on those computer models. I mean, I’m not gonna sit there and say that because a computer model shows it’s gonna turn north, it’s absolutely not gonna hit Miami. You can’t depend on that. Even Allison came up and turned east.

They have got it down to a little better in some cases, but I wouldn’t absolutely put my life on a probability forecast like that. Too many variables, too many chaotic conditions that maybe don’t even go into the computer model. I think in some of the forecasts, they can tell better than some of the others, like Mitch.

Q. What two or three things would you suggest are the most important for people to invest in to protect their homes and their families?

A. They should certainly keep up with the situation that occurs and they should have plenty of battery radios in their house and they should have a weather radio. They should have some knowledge of what can happen. They should be prepared to some extent to know that they can have flooding. Florida, you know, is a menace to navigation. I mean, the whole thing is low.

I think that one of the main things is they have to avoid complacency and understand that these hurricanes are a fact of life. The only thing we can be sure of is that we are going to have future hurricanes. I don’t mean they have to run scared or anything like that from June 1 to Nov. 30, but they should be aware of what can happen and govern themselves accordingly.

Reprinted from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.