How this Florida town survived a hurricane

Clever engineering and solar power helped Babcock Ranch get through last week's devastating Hurricane Ian
Hurricanes, like Irma in 2017, can cause an immense amount of damage to coastal areas. (ID 107301839 © Lavizzara |

The end of September brought two extremely powerful hurricanes to different parts of North America.

On September 24, Hurricane Fiona made landfall (reached the shore) of southeastern Nova Scotia. Over the next couple days, it moved north through the province, before hitting Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.

Then, last week, an even stronger storm, Hurricane Ian, moved across the state of Florida, hitting cities like Tampa Bay, moved back out over the ocean, and then turned back inland, moving over South Carolina.

In both cases, these enormous storms brought devastating winds well over 160 km/h (100 mph), huge amounts of rain, and 'storm surges' (a rushing amount of ocean water) that flooded whole towns. Electrical power was knocked out for millions (including 95 percent of PEI. and 80 percent of Nova Scotia). Basic services like running water were also lost.

But while so many in Atlantic Canada and the southeastern U.S.A. are working to bring back services and rebuild homes, there is a small town in Florida that escaped almost the hurricanes with almost no damage.

Called Babcock Ranch, this town has become an international story. Let's look at why (and how it managed to endure Hurricane Ian so well).

What are hurricanes?

Embed from Getty Images

The aftermath of Hurricane Ian in coastal Florida. (Getty Embed)

First though, a word about what these storms are all about. Hurricane are enormous tropical storms that form over an ocean. (Depending on where they occur, they are also called cyclones or typhoons.)

These storms are hundreds of kilometres wide and spin with great force around an open space in the centre called the eye. To become a hurricane, the storm needs to reach a certain strength, after which they are rated on scale (Category 1 is the weakest, Category 5 is the strongest). A hurricane gains strength over water, and begins to lose it as it moves over land. We have written a bunch about hurricanes here and here and here.

At their strongest, Fiona and Ian were both Category 4 hurricanes. (Fiona was the strongest hurricane to ever hit Canada.)

Getting more powerful

Embed from Getty Images

Downed power lines in Fort Myers, Florida after Ian. Many places will wait days and weeks for power to return. (Getty Embed)

For people who lived in Atlantic coastal areas like Florida, hurricanes are nothing new. They are common in late August and September, and it is often accepted that a fairly strong one will hit where you live every few years or so. Though these storms could be frightening, most coastal towns and cities were able to recover fairly quickly.

But due to climate change, those storms are getting stronger and stronger. In 2017, for example, Hurricane Irma pummeled much of the Caribbean and Florida. In some cases, the process of rebuilding took well over a year. Despite building codes that required homes to be build in a certain way to withstand hurricanes, the storms were getting too powerful.

A new type of town

Embed from Getty Images

A view of the solar farm that powers Babcock Ranch. (Getty Embed)

These are some of factors that led to the founding of Babcock Ranch, Florida. The first ideas for it came up in the mid-2000s. After about ten years of preparation, construction began in 2015.

Babcock Ranch is what is known as a planned community.

The town was meant to be walkable and full of bike trails, with less emphasis on cars. It was also designed to be America's first fully solar-powered town, with a massive solar array on the outskirts of the town. And about 90 percent of the town's land was meant to be used as either a nature preserve (a place for wildlife) or for agriculture (growing food).

And its streets were designed to flood. This means that in the event of heavy rains, the city streets themselves would turn into rivers, leading the water away from people's homes and to a safe place. Also, power and internet lines were all buried underground so that they would not be blown over in high winds.

First big test

Babcock Ranch was not just designed to withstand hurricanes. It was mainly built to embrace a 'greener' future. It would use less fossil fuels for energy, be a place where cars weren't as needed for transportation, and have more spaces for nature.

But a big hurricane like Ian was always going to be a big test. How did it do?

Like nearly every other Florida town or city in Ian's path, Babcock Ranch is full of fallen trees and damaged roofs. But the entire town kept power, internet, and running water through and after the storm. Its streets successfully collected and diverted the flooding rains. With a few repairs, the town will be back to normal in no time.

Meanwhile, nearby Fort Myers was especially damaged and will take many months to fix.

A way forward?

Embed from Getty Images

A home under construction in Babcock Ranch back in 2017. (Getty Embed)

Is it fair to compare a place like Fort Myers with Babcock Ranch? Perhaps not.

Fort Myers is right on the coast. Babcock Ranch is 19 km (12 miles) inland. A true coastal town is always going to be hit harder by a hurricane, especially its storm surge.

But the hurricane was still more than strong enough to have caused far more damage to Babcock Ranch than it did. For a hurricane that strong to pass right over the town and cause so little wreckage or problems suggests that their design worked.

Will this town change how we design coastal cities in the future? It will be challenging. Applying the lessons learned from a town with 2,000 homes to a city of millions like Miami isn't simple.

But if nothing else, Babcock Ranch is proof that we can embrace new green tech and building styles in a way that also helps protect us from the worst storms that nature can produce.

Write a message

Tell US what you think

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


 :-)  ;-)  :-D  :-(  :-P  :-o  :-x  :-|  :-?  8-)  8-O  :cry:  :lol:  :roll:  :idea:  :!:  :?:  :oops:

The last 10 Planet articles