Hurricane categories explained: How strong is each category?

NWS uses a system that only measures a hurricane's sustained wind speeds.

September 7, 2023, 11:38 AM

Hurricane Lee, now churning over the Atlantic Ocean, has intensified to a Category 5 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.

But how intense is a Category 5 hurricane, and what do the different categories mean for people in the storm's path?

The National Weather Service uses the Saffir-Simpson Scale, which only measures a hurricane's sustained wind speeds using a 1 to 5 rating system. This scale provides estimates of potential property damage, according to NWS.

Category 1 hurricane

A Category 1 hurricane has sustained winds between 74-95 mph, according to NWS.

Its "very dangerous winds" will cause some damage to roofs, shingles, vinyl sidings and gutters on well-built homes, NWS said on its website.

"Large branches of trees will snap and shallowly rooted trees may be toppled," the NWS said. "Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days."

Strong waves come ashore before the arrival of Hurricane Kay, in Los Cabos, Mexico, on Sept. 7, 2022.
Jorge Reyes/EPA via Shutterstock

Category 2 hurricane

Winds on a Category 2 hurricane are between 96-110 mph. According to the NWS, its "extremely dangerous winds" can cause major roof and siding damage to well-constructed homes.

"Many shallowly rooted trees will be snapped or uprooted and block numerous roads. Near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks," NWS said.

Storms that are Category 3-5 are considered major hurricanes.

Category 3 hurricane

Three people inside a house await rescue from the floods caused by Hurricane Fiona in Cayey, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 18, 2022.
Stephanie Rojas/AP

A Category 3 hurricane has continuous winds between 111-129 mph, where "devastating damage will occur," the NWS said.

"Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes," according to the agency.

Category 4 hurricane

Category 4 storms can cause "catastrophic damage" with their 130-156 mph winds. A Category 4 storm can cause severe damage to well-constructed homes, including damaging most of the roof and exterior walls.

"Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months," the NWS said on its website about Category 4 storms.

Category 5 hurricane

Category 5 hurricanes are the most devastating, with sustained winds of at least 157 mph.

"A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas," the NWS said. "Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

ABC News' William Mansell and Karma Allen contributed to this report.

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