When a major storm is on the horizon, meteorologists will take the time to examine its conditions and estimated path as it strengthens or weakens. In certain cases, if the storm strengthens in size and conditions worsen, the terms superstorm and hurricane may be used interchangeably when describing it. While this is sometimes common, there are some key distinctions between the two weather events that should be understood and identified depending on the situation.
Hurricane vs Superstorm
The term “superstorm” has no formal definition, but the word often comes up when severe weather conditions cause extensive damage and fatalities. Generally speaking, a superstorm is a huge, harsh, and powerful storm that usually causes damage over a large area. These storms are unusually intense and do not always fit into a particular category.
The National Weather Service introduced the word “superstorm” in 1993 to define massive and destructive storms. The expressions “perfect storm” and “storm of the century” have also been used to describe unusual storms like these.
Most often, the key difference between a superstorm and a hurricane is the weather involved. A superstorm often involves cold, non-tropical weather, while a hurricane can only occur in warm, tropical conditions. Superstorms are typically extratropical cyclones and they do not occur frequently – usually only once every few decades. The extratropical cyclones making up superstorms tend to be much larger than the tropical cyclones or hurricanes. The term is most frequently used to describe a weather pattern that is as destructive as a hurricane, but which exhibits the cold-weather patterns of a winter storm.
One of the most well-known superstorms was Sandy, at one time called a hurricane but known in the aftermath as Superstorm Sandy. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Sandy affected 24 states and all of the eastern seaboard – causing an estimated $70.2 billion in damages. Currently, it is listed as the fifth-costliest U.S. storm in history, behind Hurricane Ian in 2022, hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
How are Hurricanes Measured and Classified?
Hurricanes are measured and classified by their maximum sustained winds measured in miles per hour (mph). Every hurricane starts as a tropical depression moving at less than 38 mph. If the tropical depression continues to grow, it is then categorized as a tropical storm with a maximum of 73 mph winds. Both tropical storms and tropical depressions can cause heavy rains and flooding and should be watched carefully in case they upgrade to a hurricane.
The National Hurricane Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) use the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale to measure storm strength. This scale rates hurricanes from 1 to 5 based on maximum sustained wind speed. Categories 3 and above are considered major hurricanes, although Category 1 and 2 hurricanes can still be extremely dangerous. The wind speeds for each hurricane category are:
Category 1 hurricanes have maximum sustained winds between 74 and 95 mph. While this category usually does not produce structural damage to buildings, it can easily blow roof shingles off, break large branches of trees, and cause minor flooding. Category 1 hurricanes often cause power outages that can last from several days to a week.
Category 2 hurricanes have sustained winds between 96 and 110 mph that can cause major roof and siding damage. These storms can also uproot shallow trees that block roads, making recovery after the storm difficult. The power outages associated with a Category 2 hurricane can last anywhere from several days to several weeks.
Categories 3 and above are considered major hurricanes. A Category 3 hurricane has winds between 111 and 129 mph and will cause significant damage to the area it hits. Homes and businesses can experience severe damage and complete removal of roof decking. Flooding near the landfall site may destroy small homes and continue to flood far inland. Power outages can last for several weeks.
Category 4 hurricanes have sustained winds between 130 and 156 mph. Homes and businesses can suffer severe damage, including complete removal of the roof structure or exterior walls. Extensive flooding can carry large debris for miles and pose a threat to the structures that are still standing. Power lines will be downed and trees will be uprooted, causing isolation that will make it extremely challenging to begin recovery. The area hit by the hurricane may be uninhabitable for weeks or months following the storm’s landfall.
Category 5 is the most devastating type of hurricane, with maximum sustained winds greater than 157 mph. These hurricanes cause catastrophic damage to homes and businesses, often destroying them. Widespread flooding can bury entire cities and make rescue efforts challenging. Downed power lines will take months to restore and the area hit by the hurricane will be uninhabitable for months following the natural disaster.
While winds can be dangerous and can help predict the damage inflicted by a hurricane, winds alone cannot predict the entire picture of looming hurricane damage. The category rating system doesn’t measure rainfall or storm surge, which can easily prove more dangerous than wind speeds. Both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Florence unleashed relentless rainfall after coming ashore. This rainfall caused massive flooding that not only caused billions of dollars in damage but also claimed the lives of dozens of people.
The catastrophic devastation caused by a hurricane can leave business owners struggling to rebuild and get back to their day-to-day operations. At Raizner Slania, our hurricane commercial property insurance claim attorneys have extensive experience combatting bad faith tactics used by insurance carriers to delay and undermine the claims process for their benefit. If your commercial property insurance claim for hurricane damage has been wrongly delayed, denied, or grossly underpaid, we can help.