In late September, Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida, bringing with it a storm surge described as two stories high, with winds of 150 miles per hour. It wiped out hundreds of homes and businesses in Fort Myers and did the same in most nearby villages. The Category 4 storm killed more than 100 people, injured thousands, blew away buildings and knocked out power for more than half a million households.
Damages in Florida could be in the tens of billions of dollars, with less than 5% covered by insurance.
Although the storm sat on top of it for nine hours, there was almost no damage at Babcock Ranch, a newly constructed town about 25 miles north of Fort Myers. That’s because it was designed to withstand storms such as Hurricane Ian.
After his playing career, former National Football League offensive guard Syd Kitson founded a successful real estate development company known for doing things differently. In 2005, he purchased 91,000 acres of property between Sarasota and Fort Myers and orchestrated the transfer of 74,000 acres to the state of Florida and Lee County. This created a nature preserve that would surround a 17-acre sustainable housing development on three sides, providing residents with access to 50 miles of hiking trails and forests.
Kitson’s design team wanted the new community to be what is now called New Urbanism, with downtown a few minutes walk for residents, easily accessible without getting into their cars. Architectural standards included touches such as front porches so people might get to know their neighbors.
“Syd had a vision to create a sustainable community before sustainability became a big thing,” says Amy Wicks, civil engineer for Babcock Ranch and vice president of Kimley-Horn and Associates. “We didn’t know much about sustainability, but my boss [previous employer] said, ‘You’re designing this community. Don’t mess it up.’”
Wicks began researching the topic: “I concluded that for it to be sustainable, it would have to work in harmony with nature and be something that can survive longer than some of the housing being constructed around that time.”
A week or two before Hurricane Ian hit Babcock Ranch and Fort Myers, Hurricane Fiona slammed into Puerto Rico, other parts of the Caribbean, and then the Atlantic provinces in Canada. It killed 31 people, brought storm surges up to 26 feet, winds up to 130 miles per hour, torrential rain and flooding — and destroyed thousands of trees, buildings, vehicles and power infrastructure.
Insured damages were estimated at up to $700 million, representing only about 30% of total costs because most storm damage is not covered.
Extreme weather in North America and worldwide seems to have been nonstop in the last couple of years. Ranging from heat waves, fires and floods in the west to tornadoes and massive storms in the east, insurance companies and climate researchers say the intensity of these events has been increasing.
A team of 27 scientists from the World Weather Attribution initiative concluded that the northwestern heat dome in June, which killed elderly people in their homes and wiped out the town of Lytton in about an hour, was 150 times more likely and much hotter than it would have been in a world without fossil fuels.
Solar and Sustainability Standards
The 2008 economic downturn delayed the Babcock Ranch project; it wasn’t until 2017 that it restarted in earnest. Today, the community consists of 2,000 houses, many with rooftop solar, home batteries and electric vehicle chargers. Residents enjoy a town center, town square, general store, restaurants, health center, a kindergarten through grade 8 charter school, and at least 6 million square feet of commercial space. Utilities include a microgrid (150-megawatt community solar array, 40-megawatt battery) and water treatment plant.
Houses have sold quickly; another 18,000 homes and more solar will be built in the next 10 to 12 years.
The project’s first neighborhoods were constructed by five builders who were required to meet sustainability standards. “We are now onboarding five more builders and doing training for them,” says Dr. Jennifer Languell, green building and sustainability advisor for Babcock Ranch. “They are required to meet the Florida building code, our green building code and the FORTIFIED Standard for durable construction, such as windows that can withstand 165 mph winds.”
She explains that many processes and products increase the energy performance of Babcock Ranch homes. “What drives energy performance are the ceiling insulation, better windows, low-carbon equipment such as heat pumps, mastic on ductwork, and building envelopes that are 100% sealed. Our average HERS rating is 58, based on data from about 1,500 homes.”
Between 200 and 400 homes have mini-splits, which can be smaller, such as one-half ton — conditioning only the room you’re using. The remainder use standard splits.
“Since Ian landed, we’ve done a debrief on the storm, talking about topics such as ‘What if there was more water? What if lightning hit our substation?’” Languell notes. “We’re also trying to reduce our emissions and impact on water. We already focus on water efficiency, low-flow toilets and fixtures, low-flow dishwashers and clothing washers. It doesn’t cost more to be more efficient. Now we’re looking at greywater systems and some other modern technologies.”
The FORTIFIED Standard is promoted by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, an independent, nonprofit scientific research organization supported by property insurers, reinsurers and affiliated companies.
The standard for homes (www.fortifiedhome.org) includes rules and quality minimums for roof decks; shingles; chimneys; attic vents; impact protection on windows, doors and garages; roof-to-wall and wall-to-foundation connections; cladding; attached structures; and more (see Table 1). “In the past, insurance companies gave discounts if you met the FORTIFIED standard, but in the future, you might not be able to get insurance in Florida without meeting it,” Languell says.
She also mentions that Babcock Ranch buildings were not washed away or damaged by flooding: “Our civil engineer Amy Wicks designed very comprehensive systems, stormwater infrastructure, retention ponds that are all interconnected and, therefore, redundant. If lakes fill up, the road is intentionally 2 feet lower than the home sites, so water flows into the streets. And she added a natural wetland as a backup.”
‘Nature Was Always Smarter Than Us’
“Around the time we were designing Babcock Ranch, I knew an engineer who liked to listen to music at the beach, but he was not satisfied with the available speakers, which had poor sound out there and filled up with sand,” Wicks says. “He decided to design his own and adopted something conical with layers, very much like a sea shell. It worked really well to solve the problems.”
This story inspired her and had her thinking about biomimicry and nature.
“Nature was always smarter than us — it has survived for thousands of years,” Wicks explains. “We need to figure out why it works and then copy it. Work with nature, not against it. Many developers bulldoze everything, but we decided to preserve all the existing wetlands, ponds and lakes for water storage and study the existing water flows.
“So far, we have about 100 lakes in series and parallel, so if something gets blocked, the flow takes another route. We raised the overall site by about 5 feet (3 feet above a 100-year event) and the hurricane shelter even higher (the school gymnasium with 210-mph wind resistance).”
During Ian, Babcock Ranch had no surges in the water plant or wastewater treatment facility. “We used thicker pipe for drinking water and sewers and we did not lose any water pressure or have main breaks,” she says. “In some towns, the pipes were jostled around and they broke.”
Wicks also says that most of the Babcock Ranch backflow preventers are underground, along with power and internet lines. Some backflow preventers were aboveground; in one case, a tree fell on one. “In the future, we might make it a requirement that they are all underground,” she notes.
“During the storm, we had power and water, internet, could still flush toilets and take showers,” Wicks adds. “None of our people were in the hurricane shelter, only people from other communities. One day, we lost cell phone service, which was a lesson learned; we’re now looking at a different kind of cell tower. We also studied some of the water flows and are thinking about adding some operable wiers (dams) so that we can intervene during storm events if necessary.”
Asked if it costs more to build better communities, Wicks says not really.
“We have homes ranging from about $250,000 to $1 million,” she explains. “The local averages in two counties we’re located in range from $420,000 to $475,000. It doesn’t need to be expensive to build it right, but it’s easier if you do it upfront.”
After the storm, developer Kitson was interviewed by the television show “60 Minutes,” which shined the national spotlight on the resilient community. “We are taking calls from people in communities all over the country right now, asking us how they can better protect their people,” Wicks notes. “It’s probably more expensive after it’s already built, but I think we need to do it.”
She adds: “Some folks used to tell me that hurricanes don’t hit this far south, but now I feel as if we’re being constantly battered by them. Climate change is important, and we didn’t start paying attention early enough. Communities are not prepared for it. We need to make deliberate changes to protect people.”
Puerto Rico and the Fight for Renewables
In 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, a Category 5 storm killing more than 3,000 people and destroying most of the island’s power grid. The Federal Emergency Management Agency allocated billions to rebuild the grid, but the so-called big brains in charge ignored the opportunity to move to renewables. For most of the past five years, they have been rebuilding using gas plants for power.
Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans want renewables and are resorting to organizing to create rooftop solar wherever they can. Thousands of solar rooftop arrays are installed every month, many accompanied by batteries.
A new governor says he is committed to renewables and seems to be moving in that direction, but it had been slow going. Then this year Hurricane Fiona hit, killing 25 people, knocking out power to 928,000 households and drinking water for 760,000 customers. Some of the rebuilt infrastructure has apparently been destroyed again.
In almost every country, big government, big oil, big utilities and big banks ignore the urgency of climate change and actively frustrate the will of the people, who support clean energy in poll after poll. Contrary to popular belief, this includes significant support from U.S. Republicans and conservative citizens in other countries. They understand that clean energy is much less expensive and, in many ways, a better solution. It creates jobs, healthy communities and healthy families.
The recent passing of the Inflation Reduction Act — which invests in energy security, climate change and deficit reduction — is unlikely to be repealed even if Republicans become more powerful in Congress because the biggest projects seem to be in red states, boosting their economies.
Part of the reason for the divide is people who spread disinformation about renewable energy technology through articles and social media posts meant to create confusion and delay.
Another part of the reason is that the actions of renewable energy detractors take advantage of the natural slowness of change. This is especially true in democratic places where so many are apathetic and risk-averse and work for the biggest governments, banks, corporations, etc. The world is still mostly controlled by the baby boomer generation, which seems to fear change and fight change.
U.S. Solar Owners Rise Up
Like in Puerto Rico, Americans on the mainland want renewables — and they are organizing themselves to get them. According to Canary Media, a nonprofit media firm backed by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a group called Solar United Neighbours (SUN) has been organizing groups of homeowners all over the country, including Puerto Rico.
It helps members band together to learn about rooftop solar and optionally participate in co-op group purchasing of solar and related products. SUN provides tips on the do’s and don’ts of buying solar and helps those who get systems installed with avoiding pitfalls and troubleshooting before, during and after the installation.
SUN started in Washington, D.C., 15 years ago and now includes 30,000 members in the United States. Members say they save 10% to 30% through the co-ops and technical information and avoid scams. Undoubtedly, SUN is also providing advice on what incentives are available under the Inflation Reduction Act or from numerous programs at the state, utility and local government levels.
Perhaps inevitably, SUN has become an advocacy group, lobbying state legislators and utility regulators regarding pro-solar policies. The group recently spoke up to help protect net-metering in Florida. It participates in studies on how low-income groups can access solar and helps members find appropriate finance models for upfront costs.
Life and Death
Not as widely reported in America, but extreme heat in China and biblically deep floods in Pakistan and Nigeria left large populations reeling this year. In some of these cases, a little electricity from a self-contained source could go a long way toward ensuring a family has the food, water, refrigeration or electric fan it needs to survive.
Climate scientists such as Michael Mann long ago predicted extreme weather, and with it the potential for contamination of drinking water and the rise of deadly waterborne diseases. This is now happening in some of the places I’ve mentioned.
Given that none of our governments are fully on track to meet commitments under the Paris climate accord, there is no reason to think that any country, including the United States, is immune in the sooner-than-expected future from even more horrible situations than hurricanes thrashing Fort Myers and the Atlantic provinces, or fires and heat waves ravaging the West Coast.
I don’t like stressing out readers with bad weather stories. I don’t even like talking about good news on the resilience front, such as at Babcock Ranch, because I think it puts the focus on treating the symptom instead of the cause of our disease. However, we now really have no choice but to plan for the worst.
Instead, I’d prefer to spotlight prevention, and as my October column clarified in detail (“America Goes Green,” https://bit.ly/3Ng7RGT), we now have more legislative support than ever before to ramp up the adoption of climate solutions. Let’s do that, and let’s learn what we can from the world’s tragedies and from inspired projects such as Babcock Ranch.