The man behind the scale
Almost 40 years ago, South Florida engineer Herbert Saffir helped devise the scale that measures hurricanes. At 88, he is still crusading for stronger buildings.
BY ANA VECIANA-SUAREZ
A week after Herbert Saffir moved to Miami, seven days after he had settled wife Sarah into a small but comfortable room in a two-story hotel off Tamiami Trail and Brickell Avenue, a hurricane hit and Miami flooded. It was September 1947.
A month later another storm struck, and the structural engineer was left to wonder if the harsh winters he had left behind in his native New York had prepared him for tropical weather gone awry.
Which may go a long way in explaining why Saffir has this thing for hurricanes.
Saffir. Recognize the name? You should. It's the first half of the Saffir-Simpson Scale used to measure the potential damage that results from the ferocity of a hurricane. It is so widely used now, so much part of the meteorological lexicon, that the names of its two inventors -- former National Hurricane Center director Robert Simpson is the other half -- are often omitted. In fact, it now falls into shorthand: Category 1, Category 2, etc.
The longtime Coral Gables resident who has weathered numerous storms watches the destruction Katrina wrought and can't help but shake his head.
''I certainly think Katrina is a wake-up call to all of us,'' he says. ``People who live in Florida or along the coast have to realize that it's going to happen sooner or later. I can't say that emphatically enough. Accept this as a fact of life and be thankful that you can prepare and that we have a good warning system.''
New Orleans, he adds, is one of his favorite cities. His son Richard, a doctor, lived there until a year ago, when he moved to Shreveport. Daughter Barbara is a journalist in Washington, D.C. (His wife died three years ago.)
But Saffir doesn't talk as readily about his private life as he does about the mission that has defined the past 60 years of his life. Undaunted by others' complacency, eager to spread the gospel, Saffir knows how to stay on message: we can -- we must -- build better structures to withstand the wrath of nature.
''I can't stress enough the importance of a strong building code and strong enforcement of that code,'' he adds. ``The truth is you can write any code you want but without the proper enforcement it's not going to work.''
BUILDING NAMED FOR HIM
South Florida's counties have the strongest hurricane-resistant codes in the country -- thanks, in part, to Saffir's zealous work -- first as an employee and then as a consultant to Miami-Dade County. He is such an institution that a Miami-Dade government building that fronts the turnpike along Coral Way bears his name.
''He has been very instrumental in improving the building code in South Florida,'' says Billy Wagner, senior director of emergency management for Monroe County. ``If it weren't for him, our codes wouldn't be as strong as they are today.''
Saffir, 88, is a soft-spoken man with a mind that has remained as sharp as a surgeon's scalpel. Ever the precise, detail-oriented engineer, he wears a crisp blue oxford shirt and a striped red tie when he goes to work, which is pretty much every day at a small office cluttered with books, reports and papers stacked several feet high on almost every available surface. On the wall hang huge T-squares and a dizzying variety of diplomas.
He is invariably described by those who have worked with him as the consummate gentleman. '''Very sweet, very gentle,'' says retired forecaster Miles Lawrence. ``He was always a pleasure to work with.''
Miami-Dade Building Director Charlie Danger remembers how Saffir's quiet but insistent voice of reason was a beacon during heated discussions on revising the building code after Hurricane Andrew. His knowledge and experience were invaluable.
''His demeanor is low-key, but his beliefs are very strong and he knows how to get his message across,'' Danger says. ``He gives you a sense of security. Herb is the real thing, a gentleman who really is concerned about others.''
Saffir still has the original document that contains his version of the hurricane scale, a blue-covered United Nations book entitled Low Cost Construction Resistant to Earthquakes and Hurricanes . He was hired to research and write it back in the late 1960s, when the UN wanted information on how to design housing. (The lack of proper housing in Central America and the Caribbean often resulted in hundreds of deaths due to storms.)
Doing his research, Saffir discovered that, unlike the Richter scale for earthquakes, there was no way to categorize hurricanes. He recognized the need for a damage scale that would reflect what residents could expect on the ground. So he developed one, working out a system that related wind speed to the severity of destruction in five categories.
''I just threw it in at the end of the report,'' Saffir remembers with a chuckle. ``I didn't think much of it.''
WORKED WITH SIMPSON
In fact, the original scale ended up buried on page 159 of the report the U.N. did not publish until 1975. In the meantime, however, Saffir showed the scale to his friend, Robert Simpson. Simpson, then director of the National Hurricane Center, added storm-surge damage criteria to the descriptions of each category and thus the scale became known as the Saffir-Simpson Damage Potential Scale.
In 1972, after being tested internally at the hurricane center, it became part of a weather report called the Tropical Cyclone Discussion, meant for government and emergency agencies. Three years later it began appearing in public advisories.
While pleased that the scale has become an easy-to-understand method for alerting residents, he worries that most people don't fully understand the science behind the system. Most people think that if a storm's wind speed doubles, then the force it exerts on something also doubles. Not so. The force grows exponentially.
Example: When a storm's wind speed increases from 50 mph to 100 mph, it means the force actually quadruples.
Saffir suggests that constructing strong buildings should be the first and best antidote. ''We've pioneered the [hurricane-resistant] code, but it's a minimum,'' he says. ``If you want to go beyond that, whatever the cost, I would certainly recommend it. It's easier to do when you're building instead of after.''
Though known for his expertise in hurricane-resistant construction, Saffir moved to Miami to design and build bridges and has done about 50 of them. His work is everywhere -- a crossing at Riviera and Ponce de Leon in Coral Gables, for example, and one at the Collins canal near the convention center and the West Avenue bridge as it curves into Venetian Causeway, both in Miami Beach. He also designed a jet-proof steel blast fence at Miami International Airport and has served as a consultant for buildings as far away as Hong Kong and as close as the Bahamas.
''I don't remember them all, but I do take some satisfaction in them,'' he says.
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