Oct 11, 2022 - Energy & Environment

The new hurricane resiliency: being off the grid

Aerial photo of Babcock Ranch, Florida, showing solar panels on a building roof

Two homes in Babcock Ranch, a new, hurricane-resilient and solar-powered community in Southwest Florida. (Photo courtesy of Paul McCreery)

More than 4 million Floridians lost power after Hurricane Ian. But not communities like Babcock Ranch, a Southwest Florida development that bills itself as America’s “first solar-powered town.”

Why it matters: Boosting the resiliency of neighborhoods and infrastructure is becoming increasingly urgent as global warming makes hurricanes more powerful.

Babcock Ranch has an 870-acre solar farm, along with solar “trees” along its streets, all of which survived Ian unscathed — which may be a key to future climate resiliency.

  • “It was remarkable because of the way this town was built, all the utilities are underground. We never lost power. We never lost internet. We have our own water system and so we never lost water, and we don't have a boil order the way most of the Fort Myers area does,” said resident Nancy Chorpenning.
  • Chorpenning and her husband Paul McCreery moved to the community from Atlanta, Georgia three years ago — specifically with the idea to be near the coast, but still hurricane-safe.

How it works: New developments like Babcock, which are just a few years old, are built to Florida’s building code — the strongest in the country when it comes to hurricanes.

The planned community was built with hurricanes and flooding in mind:

  • It was constructed deliberately away from the coast — about 12 miles inland from Ft. Myers, beyond the reach of storm surge.
  • All structures are rated to withstand 145 mph winds.
  • Surface water management includes drainage lakes, streets, and what its developers call a “heavy reliance” on native plants that are storm and fire ready.

While people should always evacuate when there’s a mandatory order, increasingly storms are coming so fast people may not be able to get out in time, Tracy Kijewski-Correa, a professor of engineering and global affairs at Notre Dame University, told Axios Today.

  • “Knowing that families could hunker down in hardened homes that are rated to handle a 150 mph storm like this, and survive off-grid safely until the roads can be cleared and they can re-engage with the rest of their neighbors, will be a way we might have to handle climate change,” she said.
  • “As storms are speeding up in ways we can't predict, we may not, in places like Florida, be able to get everybody out.”

The bottom line: “We've got to start thinking about this idea of being self-contained and off-grid. I think it's going to be the wave of the future for more than just a greener country, a country that can adapt when these storms change quickly," Kijewski-Correa said.

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