Robert H. Simpson, a nationally known meteorologist who helped devise the ubiquitous 1-to-5 “Saffir-Simpson” scale used by forecasters to prepare the public for the severity of an oncoming hurricane, died Dec. 19 at his home in Washington. He was 102.
The cause was complications from a stroke, said a daughter, Peggy Simpson.
More than four decades after the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale was introduced, even the most casual consumer of weather news would view with alarm the lowest description on the scale — the mere “Category 1” — and would shudder with trepidation at the fearsome “Category 5.”
The first half of the scale’s name referred to Herbert Saffir, an engineer who had written building safety codes in coastal Florida, and who in the late 1960s was tasked with creating a hurricane-preparedness model for the United Nations.
Previously, storms had been described, with little discrimination, as “major” or “minor.” Saffir’s scale, based primarily on wind speeds, was more specific and yet elegantly simple. Dr. Simpson, then director of the National Hurricane Center, expanded the model to account for potential storm surge.
Dr. Simpson, who devoted nearly his entire adult life to the study and prediction of hurricanes, learned at an early age their lethal power. He was 6 when a catastrophic storm struck his home town of Corpus Christi, Tex., on Sept. 14, 1919. The town’s warning — besides the gusts of wind and drenching rain — was the shrieking alarm of a fire truck as the vehicle made its way through the rising waters in the street. When his family decided to evacuate, Dr. Simpson’s father carried him on his back to higher ground.
“Once we were safely relocated on the sixth floor of the courthouse, looking down on the fury raging below, we were aghast at what had already occurred and was still occurring,” Dr. Simpson wrote in a forthcoming memoir, “Hurricane Pioneer: Memoirs of Bob Simpson,” written with Neal M. Dorst. “Not only was there vast wreckage everywhere but houses, still intact, were afloat, many with refugees clinging to them.”
Dr. Simpson watched a man atop a floating, spinning cistern, struggling to keep his balance as he held a baby. Eventually, the churn of the waters caused him to fall. The man surfaced alone, then dove back in to find the infant. He did not reemerge.
“What a dreadful experience to be thrust on a 6½-year-old lad,” wrote Dr. Simpson. As as an adult, he wrote, he never forgot that “had it been Friday instead of Sunday that the unexpected hurricane had struck,” he “undoubtedly” would have been in his school, which was destroyed.
Dr. Simpson began his career in 1940 as a weather observer for the U.S. Weather Bureau, a precursor to the National Weather Service. During the late 1950s, he directed the National Hurricane Research Project, which was launched in the wake of hurricanes Carol, Edna, and Hazel.
Pursuing his research, he flew aboard aircraft directly into storms. On one such flight, during Hurricane Edna in 1954, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow accompanied him.
“In the eye of a hurricane, you learn things other than of a scientific nature,” reported Murrow. “You feel the puniness of man and his works. If a true definition of humility is ever written, it might well be written in the eye of a hurricane.”
In 1968, Dr. Simpson became director of the National Hurricane Center, a post he held until 1974. He oversaw the forecasting of tropical storms and said he found meaningful utility in the scale initially developed by Saffir, who died in 2007.
“We needed that type of thing desperately at the time,” Dr. Simpson once told an interviewer. “I couldn’t tell the Salvation Army, for example, how much and what materials they should be shipping. The scale gave them a much better handle on that.”
Robert Homer Simpson was born Nov. 19, 1912, in Corpus Christi. In the 1930s, he received a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Tex., and a master’s degree in the same fields from Emory University in Atlanta. He received a PhD in geophysical sciences from the University of Chicago in 1962.
Dr. Simpson helped establish the Mauna Loa Observatory, an important atmospheric research station in Hawaii, in the 1950s and directed Project Stormfury, an experimental program in hurricane modification, in the 1960s.
Dr. Simpson taught at the University of Virginia in the late 1970s and later ran Simpson Weather Associates. He worked closely with his wife, the former Joanne Gerould Starr Malkus, a distinguished atmospheric scientist, who died in 2010 after 45 years of marriage.
Dr. Simpson’s earlier two marriage ended in divorce. Survivors include two daughters, Peggy Simpson of the District and Lynn Simpson Gramzow of Burke, Va., both from his first wife, Mazie Houston Simpson; three stepchildren, David Malkus of Madison, Wis., Steven Malkus of Falmouth, Mass., and Karen Malkus of Brewster, Mass.; a brother; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
In recent years, some meteorologists have argued that factors beyond wind speed, including a hurricane’s size and associated rainfall, should be incorporated into modeling. Forecasting also has evolved with the advancement of satellite and other technology. But the elegant appeal of the 1-to-5 rating system remained.
“I once heard the financial meltdown of 2008 described as a Category 5 storm,” a meteorologist, Robert Henson, told USA Today. “That tells you something about how deeply the Saffir-Simpson scale has penetrated the consciousness of the American public.”