Remembering Herb Saffir

A memorial service for Herb Saffir was held Wednesday. Stories shared at the service made it clear that Herb was indeed a remarkable person and a major contributor to our nation’s Hurricane Warning Program.

I thought I knew Herb pretty well, but there was one story that I had not heard until the service.

By the time Herb was seventeen, he had fallen in love with the sea and was working on a cruise ship named the SS Morro Castle. The ship’s final voyage began in Havana on Sept. 5, 1934. On the Sept. 7, the Captain of the SS Morro Castle died of an apparent heart attack and the command of the ship was passed to the Chief Officer.

During the overnight hours, the ship began encountering winds over 30 mph as it moved up the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Shortly before 3 a.m., a fire was detected and within 20 minutes the ship was plunged into darkness and the wheelhouse lost its ability to steer the ship. Conditions grew steadily worse, and the decision became either jump or burn for many passengers.

Eventually, six of the ship’s 12 lifeboats were able to be launched but carried only 85 people, most of whom were crew members. Herb Saffir was one who jumped into the water with a life preserver. Several nearby ships eventually came to help rescue the survivors in large ocean swells. By mid-morning on Sep. 8, the ship was totally abandoned and its hull drifted ashore, coming to a stop in shallow water off Asbury Park, New Jersey. In the end, 135 passengers and crew (out of a total of 549) were lost. According to friends, Herb was in the water for 7 to 8 hours and is credited with saving one woman’s life by keeping her afloat.

Herb gave up the life at sea and eventually received a civil engineering degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1940. He moved to Miami in 1947 with his wife Sarah. His encounter with two hurricanes that first year in Florida appears to have focused his attention on the need for better building.

Most of us will remember Herb for being the initial creator of what has become known as the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale (SSHS). This scale came out of a 1969 United Nations commissioned study of windstorm damage on low-cost housing. Herb shared his scale with then Director of the National Hurricane Center, Dr. Robert Simpson in the early 1970s. Dr. Simpson added a storm surge component to the scale because so many lives were being lost from this hazard. By the mid 1970s the scale was operational.

Most people don’t have any idea what type of damage 100 mph winds or 125 mph winds or 150 mph winds can do in a hurricane. The SSHS was nothing short of brilliant in helping forecasters communicate the intensity of a hurricane through a simple number – 1 through 5 – along with the type of damage that could be expected with each category. Today, most emergency management evacuation plans are based, in large part, on the SSHS category along with the time of arrival of tropical storm force winds.

Herb was also a persistent advocate for stronger building codes.

Some years ago, Herb said “One of the items rarely mentioned by NOAA is the existence – or lack – of strong and well-enforced building codes….Preparedness information at the time focused on bringing in garbage cans and lawn furniture…But the fundamental basis for starting a plan for hurricanes is in the building code.”

At one time Herb even sent me a portion of the Code of Hammurabi, the King of Babylon around 1800 BC, that said “If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.”

Herb gets a lot of credit for helping strengthen the building codes, especially in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.

Herb was also known for sending letters or notes of concern to several people.

Last night I reread some of the correspondence that he had sent me over the years and found his comments on gable ends, doors, windows, garage doors, boats, and the need to trim trees before the hurricane season. Some of his hand written notes include “…most areas of the Gulf coast and Atlantic coast use building codes that are inadequate for hurricane resistance.” “I can make a categoric statement that most coastal areas in the U.S. are in danger of heavy structural damage in a Category 2 or higher hurricane”, “Max, it is ridiculous for the Florida panhandle to have lower standards”, and when referring to Hurricane Wilma damage “…a good example of improper design and lax code enforcement.”

One time he sent me an article about a community in Ohio that was proposing to abolish its building code. Herb basically scared the ‘bejeebers’ out of me, and then ended the note with “Best regards, Herb.”

He helped me understand the importance of strong building codes more than anyone.

He was also a very humble man. For example, when asked to comment on having the Miami-Dade County Herbert S. Saffir Permitting & Inspection Center named after him in October of 2002, he replied “I think I’ve left a little mark.”

One of the last letters I received from Herb stated “Our new Florida building code will be considerably exceeded in its design storm…our Florida engineers should be aware that design storms are based on 50 year frequency hurricanes and can be exceeded.”

If Herb were with us today, I can just imagine him saying “are you listening?”

One of the greatest tributes we could give Herb Saffir is to continue improving our building codes in hurricane vulnerable areas.

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