Resilient Community

Babcock Ranch: A Study in Resiliency

In the wake of disaster, this self-sustaining community that was best known for its renewable energy became the benchmark for hurricane-proof design.

BY May 1, 2023
Self-sustaining community Babcock Ranch
Thanks to its recreated wetlands, underground powerlines and 900-acre solar farm, Babcock Ranch faced little damage in Hurricane Ian. The town never lost power and was up and running, with a reopened Publix and a food truck rally within days. (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

‘Catastrophic damage will occur.’ Splashed across newspapers and emblazoned on television screens nationwide. Southwest Florida braced for impact. Neighborhoods in Hurricane Ian’s path prepared for devastation. Babcock Ranch felt prepared. After all, it was designed for this very moment.

In 2006, environmental engineer Amy Wicks’ boss at a civil engineering firm tasked her with creating a storm-safe water system for retired NFL player Syd Kitson’s 27-square-mile, solar-powered community, which straddles Charlotte and Lee counties. Working off models of the land from the 1940s, Amy recreated the historic water flow through a functional and sustainable design. Rather than using berms and pipes, she engineered wetlands and recreational greenspaces to easily distribute and detain water during heavy rains, preventing flooding.

More than a decade later, the eastern side of Hurricane Ian’s eyewall sat on top of Babcock Ranch and battered the region for more than six hours. Babcock remained mostly unscathed (save a few fallen trees and displaced shingles). “We were up and running the next day,” Syd says.

The community’s commitment to quality of life and sustainability paid off for the greater region. Its 40,000-square-foot, Category 5 hurricane shelter housed people from nearby low-lying neighborhoods, and Babcock residents brought food, water and clothing to the shelter.

Since Babcock owns its water and wastewater utility systems, the community never lost water (or power or Internet), so residents could open their homes to first responders for showers and food. The Publix onsite reopened the next day, and two days after the storm, Babcock hosted its weekly Food Truck Friday (one of the many social programs for multigenerational residents at the town’s bustling Founder’s Square). “We brought the town together. There were people here from Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Matlacha—all those areas that were impacted,” Syd says. “They were appreciative to have that sense of normalcy.”

At that moment, the town that was best known for its renewable energy quickly became recognized as a model for hurricane-proof, resilient design. “You can plan for an event like we experienced—and we did,” Syd says. “We spent a lot of time engineering, planning, preparing, but the only way that you actually know if you’re going to be successful is when something happens.”   

With its underground transmission power lines, 900-acre solar farm, location 25-to-30 feet above sea level, building structures that meet Florida Green Building Coalition standards (which focus on resiliency and energy efficiency), and restored wetlands that provide backup storage for surface water, the town saw minimal storm damage.

Syd admits it costs more to build resiliently, but it’s worth it. “The return on investment is significant, not only from property damage but also from the loss of life, preventing anybody from actually getting hurt,” he says.  

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