Babcock Ranch: Florida’s first hurricane-proof town
By Lucy Sherriff, BBC
When Hurricane Ian made landfall on the southwest Florida coast, it brought 150mph (241km/h) winds, 17 inches (43cm) of rain within 24 hours, and storm surges of up to 18ft (5.5m). It was the costliest hurricane in Florida's history, causing more than $112bn (£88bn) in damage – and at least 150 deaths.
Amid the calamity, there was one community that weathered the storm surprisingly well: Babcock Ranch, an 18,000-acre (73 sq km) development that was sitting in the eye of the storm, on the southwest of the state, just north of Fort Myers. Built to withstand powerful storms, the town came out relatively unscathed.
And although it was not in the direct line of hurricane Idalia when it swept across the southeastern United States at the end of August, the town may yet get to prove its resilience again this year.
The 2023 hurricane season is expected to be even more severe than the one experienced in 2022. Atmospheric scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have predicted an "above normal" season,with as many as five major hurricanes – which would bring winds of 111mph and higher.
Florida is more likely to flood than any other state in the US due to its flat terrain. Despite this, only 18% of Florida homes have flood insurance – some residents even report their insurance would be more than their rent. A recent study found the cost of insurance was projected to increase by 40% in 2023. Exacerbating the issue is the explosive population growth and subsequent housing development that's taken place over the past century – much of it on the wetlands that would normally help prevent to flooding. Over the next 50 years, Florida's population is expected to increase by another 12 million people, and the proportion of land developed could jump from 18% to 28% – an increase of 3.5m acres (14,000 sq km).
Building climate-resilient communities is especially important in a state like Florida, which experiences a six month-long hurricane season. And that's exactly what Syd Kitson, developer of Babcock Ranch, hoped he'd achieved.
Five days before Hurricane Ian hit, Kitson sat around a table with his team of engineers, contractors and internal managers, and pored over the layouts of Babcock Ranch. He asked them: "Have we done everything humanly possible to ensure we're safe?"
Kitson had built the development above building code requirements – at a large additional cost – to ensure it was capable of withstanding a storm. "We spent a lot of additional dollars to make it safe, to plan it differently from other communities," he says. "The entire plan was based on the environment and resiliency. Everything we did was to address those two concerns."
The ranch, which opened in 2018 and is around five times the size of Manhattan Island, is like a picture-postcard, with neatly manicured lawns, vibrant green golf courses, forest trails and cycle paths. Residents zip around in solar-powered golf carts, kayak on the lakes, birdwatch, and congregate at the community pools. But the beautiful aesthetics have a dual purpose: the lakes double up as retaining ponds to protect houses from floods, streets are designed to absorb excess rainfall, and the community hall is reinforced as a storm shelter. A large 870-acre solar panel farm powers the entire development, as well as surrounding communities – making Babcock Ranch America's first solar-powered town.