Powerful Hurricanes Have Reduced Coastal Cities to Wreckage. But This Community Stands Unscathed.
Aug 19, 2023
Babcock Ranch, Florida isn’t just storm-proof—it’s a blueprint for the future.
When Hurricane Ian smashed onto Cuba’s southwest coast in the early morning hours of Tuesday, September 27, 2022, Syd Kitson exhaled. At that point the Category 3 storm was forecast to make landfall on the Florida panhandle, far from Kitson’s home base on the southwest Gulf Coast. It was certain to lose steam spinning across the largest island in the Caribbean.
But then Ian buzzed through Cuba’s tobacco country before hooking eastward toward the Keys. The move pretty much faked out the forecasters and had the National Weather Service scrambling to draft a new cone of uncertainty. As Ian recharged in the warm Gulf waters, Kitson’s breathing shortened all over again. “I mean, the thing just exploded in intensity,” he recalls. And now it had his community, an 18,000-acre outcropping of wetland called Babcock Ranch, in its crosshairs. Given that he was the guy who’d planned and developed the community to begin with, the 64-year-old had to act.
On the night of the 27th, Kitson called his team of contractors, engineers, and employees into a windowless conference room inside the Babcock Ranch visitor’s center. They discussed the rigidity of the community’s more than 2,000 single-family homes, reviewed contingency plans for electricity and water management, and heavily scrutinized neighborhood drainage. The next morning, a TV report confirmed their worst suspicions: “This thing’s headed straight for Babcock Ranch,” a forecaster said. And the storm, a Category 4, was even stronger.
You’d think that warning would’ve had Ranch residents scrambling up I-75 and heading for the hills. But everybody stayed home. Still, Kitson second-guessed that decision while performing one last check of his hurricane game plan, as the gathering winds rocked his full-size pickup—“almost like it was on two wheels,” he recalls. “That’s when I thought, ‘I need to get back to the house.’”
Kitson’s three-bedroom, three-bath, two-story home was a sitting duck. It’s situated on the westernmost tip of a peninsula that juts into Lake Babcock, a 300-acre backdrop for perfect sunsets and the occasional kayaking jaunt. The house’s most dramatic feature is its array of tall windows; the bulk of them frame the back porch facing the lake.
Ian finally landed in Babcock on the afternoon of Wednesday the 28th. Kitson paced the center of his living room as the back windows howled and bowed in against the storm’s triple-digit winds. Lake Babcock went from placid to white-capped, surging water over its banks, and the gusts literally screeched through the seams of Kitson’s back sliding doors. A blinding froth of rain and storm surge made it impossible to see what was coming next, much less whether neighbors were faring any better. Kitson remembers boldly venturing outdoors at one point and the storm “literally taking my breath away,” he says. “You’d get these winds blowing at 150 mph and then, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, it would settle down to about 100 mph. When it got down to that range, you could actually see across the lake. And what struck me were the homes. The roofs were still there.”
In all, Hurricane Ian tormented Babcock Ranch for eight hours, well into the evening. At sunrise, Kitson jumped back into his pickup to survey the aftermath. What he saw staggered him. “People were walking around almost stunned at how little damage there was,” he says. “You knew something had happened, but everything we had done … it worked.”
Throughout history, humans have frequently migrated to more desirable locations, often moving as entire communities or civilizations in search of greener pastures. That’s been particularly acute here in America, where we’ve picked up our bags and struck out for greater political autonomy, economic freedom, or food security. But in the digital age, we approach mass migration with a double-mindedness once reserved for online dating. We say we want to live somewhere nice and safe, but we keep moving to places that are under threat from more dangerous weather. Since the COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to remote work, city dwellers in particular are pulling up stakes in droves and flocking to small and midsize Sun Belt towns. (Why shovel snow if you can build sandcastles at the beach, amirite?) But the lure of affordable housing and a fulfilling outdoor life is not without its risks.
According to a 2020 ProPublica analysis of county data from the Rhodium Group, an economic and environmental think tank, the southern third of the United States is most vulnerable to climate damage, potentially to the tune of an 8 percent economic loss. And if upward trends of flooding, wildfires, and scorching heat hold, the nation could soon be reckoning with mass migration on a scale not seen since the Dust Bowl upended American life during the first half of the 1930s.
All of this is especially consequential for Florida—the fastest-growing state for the first time since the late 1950s, according to the most recent U.S. Census, and home to eight of the 40 riskiest counties in the Rhodium survey. Between April 1, 2020, and July 1, 2022, more than 700,000 people moved to the Sunshine State; 6 million more are expected to arrive by 2030. Contrary to what Jerry Seinfeld may have had you believing in the ’90s, Florida is no longer the place where Del Boca Vista types “go to die.” But it is still a ripe target for powerful tropical storms. Eight catastrophic hurricanes have battered the state in the past 19 years alone, the first six hitting between 2004 and 2005.
Northeast of Fort Myers is where Lee and Charlotte Counties come together, and the area is home to many planned communities for seniors. Babcock Ranch, which blooms out from the county line, could have easily been cut up and sold to make way for more strip malls, golf courses, and McMansion subdivisions. But the property was never meant to be a gold mine. Perry McAdow, a legendary prospector, bought the original 156,000-acre tract in the late 1800s after hitting pay dirt in Montana’s Fergus County. In 1914 he sold it to lumber magnate Edward Babcock—who swiftly named the place after himself and, in the 1930s, installed his son Fred as front man.
Fred’s death in 1997 prompted the family to put the ranch back on the market, but any serious parties had to share their goals of preserving most of the natural wetland. They tried unloading the property on the state but couldn’t make the details work. That left a door open for Syd Kitson and his partners, and in 2006 his development firm agreed to buy 91,000 acres and sell 73,000 acres back to Florida for preservation; the $2 billion deal remains the largest land swap in Florida history. And yet it begged the question: Would anything really come of it?
Kitson has always been something of a way paver. As a former NFL guard, he learned from two of the most principled coaches in league history: Bart Starr in Green Bay and Tom Landry in Dallas. “They were all about doing things with integrity and irreproachable ethics,” says Kitson, who played five years altogether—a fact he’s reminded of every morning as he lurches his 6-foot-4 frame out of bed. “So much of how I do things is a result of them. But mainly I learned you’re never going to do anything innovative if you’re afraid of failure.”
Kitson imagined Babcock Ranch as a new kind of tomorrow town: an idyllic live-where-you-work scene that would grow in harmony with the local ecosystem, a “smart” town with accessible pricing and autonomous cars. Think Mayberry meets the Jetsons. Crucially, the ranch needed to survive the city-destroying hurricanes that roar toward and sometimes across Florida from June through November. The community needed an energy supply that would be impervious to wind and flooding, as well as buttressed housing. It was an ambitious pitch in a state accustomed to spectacular landscape-altering developments. According to The Swamp, a 2006 account of Everglades history, Standard Oil cofounder Henry Flagler fueled Florida’s tomorrow-town dreams at the turn of the 20th century, investing a considerable fortune into a railroad network. When he floated the possibility of connecting Homestead to Key West by blazing a trail through the Everglades, frontiersmen in the tiny town of Flamingo envisioned their tiny fishing outpost becoming the next Chicago. But Flamingo never became more than an Everglades campsite with no permanent residents. In 2010, the National Park Service unveiled a “master plan” to remodel Flamingo into an ecotourism attraction with a hurricane-proof lodge, cottages, eco-tents, a restaurant, and miles of bike paths that hew to the natural landscape. But after languishing for a decade, the project has been significantly scaled back after federal money it had been counting on was instead earmarked for Everglades restoration and coastline preservation.
When the housing market bubble burst in 2007, barely a year after the Babcock deal was sealed, Kitson’s tomorrow town looked like it might languish too. And it may well have, if the offensive lineman hadn’t laid down critical groundwork.
At Kitson’s urging, Florida Power & Light in 2009 announced plans for a solar farm that would span 870 acres and ultimately produce 150 megawatts, more than enough to power 30,000 homes a year. The project effectively made Babcock Ranch the country’s first solar-powered city.
Eight years later, Babcock Ranch cut the ribbon on a $15.5 million solar-powered water and sewage treatment plant. In addition to delivering 250,000 gallons of drinking water per day, it recycles 200,000 gallons of wastewater, funneling the bulk of it back into Babcock Ranch’s artificial lakes and native vegetation. Taken as a whole, it makes an irrigation network that allows for preemptive flood management. It’s a network that also includes city streets, which were paved two feet below buildings to flow stormwater into the preservation land. The whole of the Babcock Ranch development sits 20 feet above sea level and forms around preexisting creeks and canals, so water doesn’t get stuck where the humans are. All that came well before the first house was fully built.
Kitson promised homes that would be built to a quality exceeding the highest LEED standards, a rating system for environmentally responsible design. He would also exceed the stringent statewide building codes that were mandated in 2002—10 years after Andrew, the costliest hurricane to rock the country until Katrina. The houses at Babcock would start at $250,000 and mostly use single-level floor plans; they’d also be smaller and 20 to 30 percent more energy efficient than other new homes in comparable communities nearby. Their concrete-framed designs would be reinforced with steel beams and bolted together with aluminum studs, with extra braces tying the exterior walls to the roof and foundation—a vastly stronger challenge to triple-digit gales. But with the economy recovering from the real estate crash, it would be nearly a decade before a buyer took residence in Babcock Ranch.
The town was mostly a hard-hat area in 2017 when Hurricane Irma blew through; the Category 4 storm triggered the largest evacuation (6.8 million) in state history before lashing the Gulf Coast with 15 inches of rain and 130 mph winds. Ultimately, 84 people died in Florida and 6.7 million more lost power. The damage in Lee and Charlotte counties alone totaled almost $1 billion. But at Babcock Ranch, only a few road signs and fence screens were knocked out of place. “That’s when we knew we were on the right track,” Kitson says.
It was much the same story when I visited Babcock Ranch for the first time in January, two months after Ian touched down. Apart from a drifting entryway pylon (“the leaning tower of Babcock,” my tour guide, Lisa Hall, called it) and some tousled shrubbery, you’d never know this place was also assaulted by the deadliest hurricane to strike the state in 87 years.
On this bright 80-degree weekend day, Babcock residents dine alfresco at a farm-to-table restaurant on the main street, splash around in community pools, and otherwise soak up the Florida rays. By burying all the power lines, Babcock Ranch ensures postcard-perfect vistas of glassy lakes and breezy palms no matter where you look. No, there aren’t any driverless cars on the streets. Today, most residents get around on golf carts and bikes; I ride shotgun in Hall’s Tesla, charged off a 240-volt outlet in her garage—standard equipment for all Babcock residents. For her, Babcock electricity bills, around $130 for most homes, are down to nothing thanks to the solar panels she has on her roof. “All I do is the connection fee so that I can pull from the grid at night,” says Hall, who had been in the throes of a European vacation when Ian touched down. “When I came back after almost three months, the clock on my stove was still right.”
Overall, the sense of serenity here is inspiring. There are no traffic jams, no thrumming HVAC units, no traces of pollution. It’s a far cry from Fort Myers, where my hotel room smells of mildew and there’s a stack of rotting mattresses spilling out of a car park dumpster. “Most people, after retirement, that’s their time to travel,” says Richard Kinley. “The problem is, since we’ve gotten here, we haven’t really traveled at all because, hell, most of the time we feel like we’re living in a resort.”
In 2018, Richard and his wife, Robin, became Babcock Ranch’s first residents, moving from Acworth, Georgia. Their interest was piqued from the moment the project was announced. But when the economic downturn slowed residential development, they explored other options. Richard, formerly a med-tech engineer, was drawn to the plains of eastern Colorado; the couple already had friends there, and the views were perfect for Richard’s developing wildlife photography hobby. But one bout with freezing fog quickly had Robin, a former French teacher and Florida native, saying non merci. “I’m not freezing my ass there,” she says. “I grew up in Florida. I lived in Hawaii. I was like, ‘I’m not living with frozen fog.’ It’s very expensive and it felt desolate to me.”
Life at Babcock Ranch was fairly lonely to begin with, too. The Kinleys’ 2,400-square-foot ranch-style abode, about half the size of their suburban McMansion, was the first of four completed single-family homes in town; the lake abutting them was named in their honor. Richard likes to joke about beating the next family to move in by a week and a half and takes sport in being first to visit new town developments—the Mexican restaurant, the ice cream shop, the public school.
In general, Richard fancies himself an early adopter. “I remember when I bought my Tesla, a lot of people said, ‘Oh, I’d wait a couple years to make sure you’re not wasting your money,’” he says. “But my intuition was that it was going to do fine, and when I visited here, I thought, ‘There’s no reason why this shouldn’t do well.’ I liked the way they were pushing sustainable living and thought it would attract other people who appreciated that too.”
Now the 5,000-strong community boasts all types—young and old, retired professionals and digital nomads seduced by the town’s hardwired fiber optic internet setup. Lightning-fast WiFi was a big bonus for Tom Port, a retired mortgage banker who moved to Babcock in late 2022 with his wife, Susan, a medical IT pro. I can’t make it inside without drooling over the double-reinforced garage door and the cobblestone driveway; the porous brick is designed to facilitate water flow. Inside, it’s airy and quiet—a considerable step up from their old place just an hour west. They were lucky to make it out of there.
Located six miles off the coast of Fort Myers, Sanibel Island was a paradise—one serenaded by Graham Nash and Neil Young in the 1990s—that attracted sun worshippers from all around. But since Ian made landfall here, well, it looks like a bomb went off. Riding back with Tom, he eases me over the causeway that just reopened after the storm washed out giant sections, points out the scores of resort high-rises and community houses that sit empty from rot, marvels at junk heaps piled on the roadside—everything from rugs to whole refrigerators.
Port takes me through his old neighborhood to meet Bruce Casper, a neighborhood friend still grappling with storm recovery. An excavation contractor, Casper moved to the island in the 1970s—“back when the only people here were artists and drug smugglers,” he says. For most of that time he lived in a secluded two-story home off the beach that had plenty of breathing room across two and a half acres for his hobby cars, industrial vehicles, and a man cave garage full of keepsakes. In that time, tropical storms came and went—but each time the water never came up more than knee-high.
During Ian, Casper says, the water surged past the ceiling of the first floor. Like many on the Gulf Coast, he stayed put, thinking the storm would miss. But in the end, Ian destroyed everything that is precious to Casper. It trashed his fleet of work vehicles and obliterated the place he’s called home for 52 years. And while he’s determined to rebuild, he’s also pushing 70 years old. “When Hurricane Charlie came through, I was 50, I had time,” Casper says from the washed-out garage that was once his sanctuary. “Could I leave? Yeah, I could leave. That house will never be worth anything again, because it’s on the ground.”
The Ports, who built their life in Wisconsin before moving to Florida, stayed with friends in Fort Lauderdale to escape Ian. “I’m no stranger to tornadoes,” Susan tells me back at the ranch. “But I had not lived through a huge hurricane. I’m good for the rest of my life. She and Tom wouldn’t have been in position to leave Sanibel if their 1,500-square-foot house hadn’t been built on 10-foot pilings, which helped limit the damage to their garage. (Their car did get swamped in salt water, though.) Ian was all the motivation they needed to pull up stakes after two and a half years. “How is that ever gonna get cleaned up,” Tom says, the pain thick in his voice as we pass a once-bustling resort turned eyesore en route back to Babcock Ranch. “People say it’s coming back strong. It’s not.”
Not long before Hurricane Ian, Babcock Ranch opened the doors to a 40,000-foot field house just off Lake Babcock. When it isn’t playing host to youth sporting events or Sunday church congregations, it’s a state-of-the-art storm shelter with a 210 mph wind rating. The only glass on this structure is on the set of double storm doors at the flanks, each costing $35,000.
Altogether, some 250 people wound up scrambling in before and after Ian. “But our residents didn’t need it,” says Kitson. They don’t even have to carry flood insurance. So they pay their good fortune forward, trading shifts serving meals for evacuees while doing laundry for overtired first responders until the last evacuee could return to whatever home they had left. “I think a lot of us just had survivor’s guilt and kept asking, ‘How can we help?’” Kitson says. “It was really an incredible, almost surreal scene when people were out and about and, literally, just a few miles away, there was such incredible devastation and loss of life.”
Babcock Ranch isn’t perfect. Hard-core environmentalists still aren’t on board with the town’s 50,000-resident master plan, which would make it half the size that Fort Myers is now. And no place is completely weatherproof, of course. What’s more, Babcock’s starting home prices in the high $200,000s still present an entry barrier for the average American. But Kitson is the first to admit that his tomorrow town is one grand experiment. He’s determined to remove the heavy financial burden that almost always keeps average folks from becoming early adopters. Mixed into the Babcock Ranch plan are a handful of multifamily low-rise buildings that the town hopes to begin renting this summer. For the many low-wage workers who undergird the local economy and were displaced by Hurricane Ian, the relief can’t come soon enough.
The thing is, it’s hard to argue against a safe, clean, and energy-independent community that welcomes all kinds. So it figures that now that Kitson’s experiment has gotten this far, others are clamoring for his playbook. “I think you’re gonna see Babcock Ranches all over,” he says. “We’ve had people call from Georgia, Texas, Canada, and Europe. But where it gets difficult is when you’re starting with a community that’s been around for a long time. But you gotta start somewhere. And it’s not gonna happen overnight. It could take 10, 20, 40, 50 years. But your kids, your grandkids will thank you for doing it. At Babcock, we were very fortunate. It’s a green field. We could do everything right from the very beginning.”
Listening to Kitson talk about all that his tomorrow town has achieved and may someday become, I can’t help thinking back to that welcome pylon I saw on the way in, radiating in the warm Gulf sun—Lisa Hall’s leaning tower of Babcock. Sure, it may have stood askance, but it stood, a literal port in a storm: tall, proud, defiant—the improbable beacon for a new way forward.
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