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Postcards from the AMS hurricane conference: Bob Simpson honored

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 12:49 PM GMT on April 17, 2012

I'm in Ponte Verda Beach, Florida this week, where the world's hurricane experts are gathered to attend the 30th Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology of the American Meteorological Society. The conference started out with a remarkable blast from the past, when Dr. Bob Simpson, one of the originators of the familiar Saffir-Simpson scale, gave the opening talk. Dr. Simpson has been a meteorologist since 1940, and is in amazing shape for someone who turns 100 years old later this year. Dr. Simpson served as director of the National Hurricane Center, and was joined in the audience by two other NHC directors, May Mayfield and BIll Read. Dr. Simpson described his work with civil engineer Herb Saffir, who worked for the United Nations to develop low-cost housing all over the world that could withstand strong winds. Saffir and Simpson worked together, using data from aerial surveys of hurricane damage that began with Hurricane Audrey in 1957, to help develop their famous scale, which assigns a Category 1 through 5 rating to a storm based on its winds. The Saffir-Simpson scale was finally published in 1973, and gained widespread popularity after Neil Frank replaced Simpson as the director of NHC in 1974. The audience gave Dr. Simpson a standing ovation for making the effort to travel here and give a talk.

Figure 1. Dr. Robert Simpson addresses the 30th Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology of the American Meteorological Society on April 15, 2012, assisted by session chair Dr. Greg Holland.

Hurricane Andrew: 20 years later: What have we learned?
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the incredible devastation wrought in South Florida by Category 5 Hurricane Andrew. Hurricane Andrew was a wake-up call for how poorly buildings were constructed in hurricane-prone areas, and Dr. Tim Marshall of Haag Engineering discussed what we learned from the hurricane. Interestingly, much of Andrew's damage occurred in the storm's outer bands, before the peak winds arrived. The heaviest damage occurred in subdivisions that had poor building codes. Removal of asphalt shingles was a big problem. A lot of shingles were fastened with staples that ripped out, due to poor location, orientation, and depth. Often the secondary felt barrier below the shingles was not glued on, and was ripped away once the shingles ripped away. Once you lose your shingles, you often lose your house, since rain can then get into the house and destroy the interior. Andrew led to a complete revision of the building codes in South Florida, which are now the strongest in the nation. The new building codes, however, still allow for some dubious practices--like stapling shingles to roofs, and the placement of loose gravel on roof tops. Marshall concluded the talk by emphasizing that taping windows doesn't work. Board up your windows, or better yet, use steel shutters.

Figure 2. Hurricane Andrew as it closed in on South Florida 20 years ago. Image credit: NOAA.

Jeff Masters


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