Bob Simpson: scientist who ranked hurricanes

By JOHN HOWELL The Daily Fray
December 20, 2014 8:30 am

simpson.jpgBob Simpson was head of the National Hurricane Center in Miami when Camille bulldozed into Mississippi Aug. 17, 1969. Under his direction, an experimental computer model was predicting a monster storm surge. When the data was combined with a report from an Air Force WC-130 estimating winds near the eye at 190 mph, last-minute evacuations were ordered. The forecast is hailed for saving hundreds of lives.

simpson.jpgCamille killed 259 and caused $9.13 billion in damage. It was also the start of a new era in forecasting.

Simpson, who co-developed the scale that categorizes the intensity of hurricanes, died Dec. 18 in Washington, D.C. He was 102.

"I knew something of its kind was needed," Simpson said in a 2012 interview with USA Today. "Camille caused so much damage and led to widespread concern over the whole nation."

Simpson worked with engineer Herbert Saffir to develop the system that ranks the intensity of hurricanes using the potential effects of wind and storm surge. The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale was christened in 1970 and went into regular use in 1973, according to the NHC. Simpson also created the government position of hurricane specialist.

"The brilliance of the Saffir-Simpson Scale is its simplicity," said Greg Holland, a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "It communicates information in a way that immediately involves the real level of risk."

After Camille, Simpson toured the storm damage with Vice President Spiro Agnew. He said he feared for his job after confronting Agnew, saying future life-saving forecasts were unlikely until the government upgraded airplanes for expanded hurricane flights, according to the AMS Weather Book. Simpson kept his job. And the Air Force and Navy Hurricane Hunter planes were upgraded.

Simpson also persuaded the predecessor the NOAA to improve their hurricane research aircraft.

Simpson began his career with the U.S. Weather Bureau in 1940. He was head of the Miami Weather Bureau, also the NHC, in 1967-70 and director of the National Weather Service and NHC in 1970-73. As NHC director, he established a tropical weather observatory at Mauna Loa, Hawaii.

Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, Simpson was 6 when he survived a 1919 hurricane that killed more than 770 in Florida and Texas. He was married in 1968 to Joanne, also a prominent meteorologist who died in 2010.

Simpson's autobiography is expected to be published in January by the American Meteorological Society.


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