BABCOCK RANCH, Fla. – Hurricane Ian, packing winds of 150 mph, pounded southwest Florida at the end of September, bringing 18-foot storm surge and widespread flooding.
It could be Florida’s costliest hurricane, with damage estimates nearing $100 billion.
More than 110 people lost their lives in the storm, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The damage stretched across the entire Sunshine State peninsula.
However, one town in the hurricane’s path did particularly well. Not only did it just have minor damage, but residents there also weathered the storm with electricity, running water and even TV and internet.
The aftermath seems unbelievable for many. The storm left nearly 3 million households and businesses without power and running water. Weeks later, many homes and shops still didn’t have utilities.
While no two places there are alike, and areas can’t be compared apples to apples, one town surrounded by damage seems to have fared better in the storm than anywhere else.
We met the Treece family at their home in Babcock Ranch. It’s a community about 20 miles northeast of Fort Myers in Charlotte County. Ian came right through the planned community, eyewall and all.
“You could hear the wind, you could hear when things were hitting the house, but I will say at no time during the storm did I feel like we were at risk,” said Shannon Treece, a school administrator who rode the storm out with her family in their Babcock Ranch home. “It felt sturdy the entire time.” She added that they had power and the air conditioner was working.
With six people under one roof, and Winston the family dog, Treece said they watched live weather forecasts on TV, cooked dinner and her husband worked remotely. As neighboring communities were torn apart, the Treeces only lost a few shingles and screens on their patio. Minor damage at best.
“Yes, it was heartbreaking,” she said, trying not to tear up. “I’m not going to lie, it was hard. I’m going to get emotional because a lot of our staff at Babcock (Community School) live outside of here. To see the devastation outside and to start getting the calls from them, ‘My house is flooded,’ My house is gone,’ ‘I went to my house, and I just walked away from it,’ ‘My house had 4 feet of water’ -- all of those started happening after the storm. And we started understanding how fortunate we are to be here. And we have not taken that for granted.”
We visited less than two weeks since Ian came through as a Category 4, and everything looked picture-perfect. Any damage that had been done had been quickly repaired. The town was operating as normal when communities all around were still in emergency mode.
Doing this well in that big of a storm was no accident. It was part of Syd Kitson’s decades-long plan.
“When you look at what happened over the past several weeks, my heart breaks, breaks for so many people here in southwest Florida,” he said. “The destruction, the misery that you see is just unimaginable. We have our own employees who’ve lost their homes and belongings. At the same time, we at Babcock Ranch can give people hope. The hope is that it can be done right. And all the people, the planners, the engineers, all the people that came together to make this possible should be proud.”
Kitson is a former NFL player who later became an eco-conscious developer, purchasing nearly 100,000 acres of land from the Babcock family and meticulously designing what he calls the country’s first solar-powered town. A town that is now regarded as storm-resistant.
How did he build a town that is eco-friendly, storm-safe, sustainable and make it still attainable to many American families?
📹 WATCH: Take a video tour of Babcock Ranch
“I think there are a couple ways to look at that,” he explained. “If you look at Babcock Ranch today, a Category 4 hurricane just blew through here. And our recovery, we were up and running the next day. Most of what we were doing was replacing a few house shingles here and there. Some signage.”
Obviously, to power an entire town, you’re going to need more than a couple of solar panels on roofs. You’re going to need a massive solar farm. Babcock Ranch has one a few miles up the road. It’s 900 acres of land with nearly 700,000 solar panels built on what used to be a sod farm.
Kitson teamed up with utility company Florida Power and Light, harnessing the sun to generate 150 megawatts. It’s a test site of sorts with battery backups for cloudy days. FPL reported it was the underground infrastructure that kept everything working during the hurricane. In this town, you will find no powerlines, as those are often among the first to go during a storm.
“I’m very optimistic about what we can do with this company,” Kitson commented.
His group released the plans in 2005 and started construction on Earth Day in 2016. Babcock’s team of scientists and engineers had a tough task when they designed the town, making a community less vulnerable to major storms.
Kitson chose to build on land that was 25 to 30 feet above sea level, he invested in stormwater drains everywhere and built ponds to catch the water. The trees, shrubs and grass are native to Florida, so the ecosystem is naturally fitted for the weather. Every structure is built above code. It is more expensive to build and buy, but Kitson maintains it pays off in the long run.
“I do think there are going to be other companies out there that are going to look at Babcock Ranch and say we can do it better,” he said. “And I’m OK with that. Absolutely good with that.”
This neighborhood of 5,000 people is on pace to reach 50,000 within the next few years. Homes here are selling from $200,000 into the millions. Kitson said he realizes housing must be attainable for a successful town, as he wants staff to work and live within the community. His plan is to add townhomes, apartments and rentals to make them more affordable. The neighborhood already has restaurants, shops, small businesses and a Publix supermarket.
Back at the Treece house, things are oddly normal for the area. While other schools shut down for weeks, there, school is in session and homework is still due. Treece, who is in charge of the community’s charter school, said her family is now spending time volunteering in surrounding areas that weren’t so fortunate. They haven’t taken their situation for granted, she adds.
She believes this neighborhood is an example of how we should build future communities for a better relationship with Mother Earth.
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