“We’ve seen more rain with weak storms than strong storms,” Cangialosi said.
Other weather experts fault the scale for being too general.
“There’s a big difference between a weak Category 1 and a Category 2,” said Pat Fitzpatrick, an associate research professor of meteorology at Mississippi State University.
Fitzpatrick said the scale might be more useful if it allowed for more gradations in the severity of hurricanes — like the scale for the magnitude of earthquakes.
To supplement the Saffir-Simpson scale, forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration now also measure the chance of storm surge reaching certain levels, called the “probabilistic surge,” and issue it along with a storm watch or warning, Cangialosi said. Forecasters also urge emergency managers to take the surge predictions into account.
“For Sandy we knew that was going to be a big hazard. There’s been a discussion about how to warn the public and better measure these hazards rather than the direct track and category,” Cangialosi said.
Unlike the track of a hurricane or wind speed, storm surge varies greatly depending on the area a storm is approaching and can be difficult to predict, according to Brian McNoldy, a senior researcher at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
“There isn’t really a single scale for storm surge right now because there’s so many different factors,” he said, including the direction of the storm’s approach, where it makes landfall and ground cover.
“Some places are a lot more surge-prone than others,” he said, as we saw this season when Isaac and Sandy struck areas in southern Louisiana and the mid-Atlantic, “some of the most surge-prone in the country.”
McNoldy said a Category 1 “might not rip off your roof, but it will flood the whole first floor of your house.”
“Hopefully it’s something people can remember—just because it’s a Category 1 doesn’t mean it’s weak. Things like rainfall and storm surge aren’t that closely related to how intense the wind is,” he said, and when it comes to storm surge, “There is no such thing as a weak hurricane.”