Florida community built to withstand hurricanes endured barely scratched Ian: NPR


Babcock Ranch, Florida is solar powered and was built to withstand the worst storms. After Hurricane Ian, the community did not lose power or water and suffered minimal damage.

Carlos Osorio for NPR


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Carlos Osorio for NPR


Babcock Ranch, Florida is solar powered and was built to withstand the worst storms. After Hurricane Ian, the community did not lose power or water and suffered minimal damage.

Carlos Osorio for NPR

BABCOCK RANCH, Fla. – Like many others in southwest Florida, Mark Wilkerson apparently risked his life choosing to shelter in his home rather than evacuate when Hurricane Ian slammed into the week last as a Category 4 storm.

But it wasn’t just luck that saved Wilkerson and his wife, Rhonda, or prevented damage to their well-appointed one-story home. You could say it was all intentional.

In 2018, Wilkerson became one of the first 100 residents of Babcock Ranch – an innovative community north of Fort Myers where homes are built to withstand the worst Mother Nature can throw at them without being flooded or losing power, l water or the Internet.

The community is located 30 miles inland to avoid coastal storm surges. The power lines to the houses are all underground, where they are protected from high winds. Giant retention ponds surround the development to protect homes from flooding. In relief, the streets are designed to absorb flood waters and spare the houses.


Mark Wilkerson with his solar-powered golf cart. He was one of the first 100 people to move into Babcock Ranch.

Carlos Osorio for NPR


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Mark Wilkerson with his solar-powered golf cart. He was one of the first 100 people to move into Babcock Ranch.

Carlos Osorio for NPR

Wilkerson says he and his wife moved here from Illinois. “We were almost ready to build north of Tampa on the Gulf,” he says. “And then the last hurricane passed and reminded me that … I want to be somewhere where I don’t have to evacuate.”

Most residents chose to ride out the storm at home

So when the storm hit, Wilkerson and his wife stayed put, like most of the other residents here. Although the community didn’t experience the most intense hurricane, Wilkerson says they felt winds of 100 mph. At one point, the lights in his house flickered, but “lo and behold, we never lost power”.

In fact, his house didn’t even lose a shingle. That’s the basic story of Babcock Ranch, post-Ian: aside from a traffic light at the main entrance to the development that’s no longer there, a few street signs lying on the ground, and a few toppled palm trees, you wouldn’t know a hurricane has passed.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for many surrounding communities, where damaged structures and power outages are not uncommon.


This 870-acre solar array, with 650,000 individual panels, powers Babcock Ranch during the day.

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This 870-acre solar array, with 650,000 individual panels, powers Babcock Ranch during the day.

Carlos Osorio for NPR

Wilkerson has worked in the solar industry since the 1980s, and one of the things that drew him to Babcock Ranch was its innovative use of solar power: 870 acres of land owned by the development sports 650,000 photovoltaic panels, operated by Florida Power & Light.

The solar panel powers the whole community – and more. It can power 30,000 homes. However, Babcock Ranch only has about 5,000 residents. Excess returns to the grid and is used to supply surrounding communities. At night and on cloudy days, a natural gas generator kicks in to fill the void.

Developers aim for a strong and sustainable community

Babcock Ranch is the brainchild of Syd Kitson, a 64-year-old former professional footballer who made his name in the 1980s with the Green Bay Packers. He went on to found a property development company, Kitson & Partners, and Babcock Ranch is one of the company’s flagship projects.

Jennifer Languell is a sustainability engineer who helped design Babcock Ranch, and she lives here too. “We thought you could develop and improve the land, not just develop in the traditional way where people think you’re destroying the land.”

“We have a lot of open spaces. We have a lot of trails. We have a lot of parks,” she says.

“The things that we do, you don’t see them. The strength of the buildings, or the infrastructure that handles stormwater, or the utilities. You don’t see those things,” she says. “Which is good, because most people don’t need or want to think about it.”


Jennifer Languell is a green building and sustainability engineer who was involved in the design of Babcock Ranch.

Carlos Osorio for NPR


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Jennifer Languell is a green building and sustainability engineer who was involved in the design of Babcock Ranch.

Carlos Osorio for NPR

As confident as Languell is of the community’s sustainability, even she was a little unnerved by the sheer force of the storm. “I can definitely tell you that I pulled out my construction drawings and checked the wind speed,” she says.

Their good fortune pays off to others in need

Admittedly, Babcock Ranch has a slightly island feel. But in part because residents were spared the hurricane’s wrath, they were able to reach out and help those in need.

A community center here was designed to serve as a reinforced storm shelter. All those currently staying there are from other hard-hit communities. Babcock Ranch residents responded to requests on social media and shuttled for supplies.


At night at Babcock Ranch, power generation switches from solar to natural gas.

Carlos Osorio for NPR


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At night at Babcock Ranch, power generation switches from solar to natural gas.

Carlos Osorio for NPR

Judith Schrag, 70, who uses a walker, sits outside the shelter smoking a cigarette. She arrived at the Babcock Ranch shelter a few days ago
after his Port Charlotte apartment was flooded.

The community has been “absolutely phenomenal in terms of donations,” Schrag said. “They are the ones who helped bring this place to life.”


Messages written by children outside the Babcock Ranch Country Home and Community Center, which also serves as a hurricane shelter.

Carlos Osorio for NPR


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Messages written by children outside the Babcock Ranch Country Home and Community Center, which also serves as a hurricane shelter.

Carlos Osorio for NPR

Hurricane Ian was a big test for this community, where homes start at around $250,000. Languell says the storm provided “proof of concept” for the community design. Babcock Ranch developers welcome imitators, she adds. Communities elsewhere in the United States could benefit from what has been learned here.

But there’s still a lot to learn, Languell says.

“We don’t want to brag about being imaginative, because you do this, and the next thing you know, you get hit with a Category 5 and something doesn’t work as well,” she says.

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