What Does Hurricane Category 1, 2, 3 . . . Really Mean?

Learn the difference between hurricane categories and how they affect preparedness.

By Caitlin Miller

Throughout hurricane season, you may wonder what meteorologists are talking about when they describe a hurricane's category, and how that affects what will happens as it reaches land. You're not alone. Here's a quick primer to knowing your hurricane categories.

Where the categories come from: When it comes to hurricanes, meteorologists rely on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale to help us understand the magnitude of the hurricane’s impact. This 1-to 5-categorization scale does not address the potential for other hurricane-related impacts, such as storm surge, rainfall-induced floods, and tornadoes, but it does help residents (and disaster organizations) gauge the safety measures that must to be taken to prepare before a hurricane makes landfall. Use this breakdown to help you understand what's at stake.

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Category 1: Winds range from 74 to 95 mph and can be expected to produce some minor damage to property. Injuries to people and animals are generally isolated and limited to flying or falling debris. During a Category 1 storm, protected glass windows generally remain intact. Some roof damage to frame homes, apartments, and shopping centers can also occur, as well as short-term power outages due to snapped power lines and downed trees.

Category 2: Winds range from 96 to 110 mph and can be expected to produce extensive property damage. Greater wind velocities mean that debris poses a greater threat to humans and animals, while the roofing, siding, and glass windows (protected and unprotected) of frame homes are more vulnerable to damage. In a Category 2 storm, significant structural damage to apartment buildings, mobile homes, and shopping centers is also expected, as well as flooding in low-lying areas. Extensive power outages ranging from a few days to a few weeks are common, and residents are encouraged to stock up on potable water as filtration systems also fail during this time.

See the 10 Worst Hurricanes in American History.

Category 3: Winds ranging from 111 to 130 mph cause significant damage to property, humans, and animals. Mobile and poorly constructed frame homes are often destroyed, and even well-built frame homes commonly sustain major damage. Significant damage to apartments and shopping centers (even those made of wood or steel) can be expected. Category 3 storms can also cause extensive inland flooding. Electricity and water are commonly unavailable for several days to several weeks after the storm, therefore it’s important for residents to have their own stores of canned food and water.

Category 4: Winds range from 131 to 155 mph and can cause catastrophic damage to property, humans, and animals. Severe structural damage to frame homes, apartments, and shopping centers should be expected. Category 4 hurricanes often include long-term power outages and water shortages lasting from a few weeks to a few months, so again, it’s important for any remaining residents to have a significant nonperishable food and water supply at hand.

See our video about how one Mississippi family rebuilt their beloved home, after Hurricane Katrina.

Category 5: Winds at or greater than 155 mph cause catastrophic damage to property, humans, and animals (read: you should be nowhere near this storm!). Complete or almost-complete destruction of mobile homes, frame homes, apartments, and shopping centers should be expected, and nearly all trees in the area will be snapped or uprooted. Power outages can last for weeks and possibly months. Long-term water shortages should be expected as well, and most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.

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