How a solar-powered community withstood Hurricane Ian

Lisa Hall/Babcock Ranch

Hurricane Ian's impact on southwest Florida has been nothing short of devastating. But even as millions lost power, had their homes destroyed and were left in total disarray, one small community managed to get through relatively unscathed.

The community is known as Babcock Ranch, situated just 20 minutes away from downtown Fort Myers, an area among those hit hardest by the storm. The community calls itself "the world's first solar-powered town." But what makes life so different for the roughly 4,600 residents? It was built on the basis of sustainability for a future of survival.

"When storms take aim at southwest Florida and evacuation orders are issued, residents of Babcock Ranch are at a distinct advantage," a representative for the community, Lisa Hall, told CBS News. "Storm safety and resiliency has been factored into every element of design and engineering of the town."

Babcock Ranch rests on higher ground than much of the surrounding area – at least 25 feet or more above sea level – which the ranch says is "beyond the reach of coastal storm surge." All of the buildings and structures in the community are developed to withstand winds of up to 145 mph, or what would be a mid-range Category 4 hurricane according to the Saffir-Simpson scale. Even the plants are able to withstand storms – the community relies on native flora that is generally better able to handle Florida's extreme weather and also reduce storm runoff and flooding.

On Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said that there were more than 2 million reported power outages in southwest Florida. Lee and Charlotte counties, "are basically off the grid at this point," he said that morning. But Babcock, located in Charlotte County, was the exception.

It's 100% solar-based, with 150 megawatts of its power generated by nearby Florida Power & Light solar facilities. Having this system in place prevented the community from losing power while most of the nearby areas were without it for days.

The solar panels held up "nothing short of amazing," Hall told CBS News. That power even helped keep a storm shelter open that wasn't even expected to be used because of the delayed delivery of a generator. But at the last minute, the shelter was opened, and according to Hall "was soon the only shelter in the region that still had power."

FPL still has to assess the solar field, but she said that this is actually the second time that field has been tested – and proven to be resilient. It was also challenged when the eye of Hurricane Irma passed over the area in 2017.

"Out of 343,000 solar panels spanning 440 acres — none of them were dislodged, and only two panels had to be replaced due to damage from flying debris," she said of the solar field's success during Irma.

Since then, solar generation in the community has doubled. It now has nearly 700,000 solar panels across about 900 acres.

As people in many of the surrounding areas were forced to boil water because of rampant flooding, Babcock did not. The community has its own water and wastewater plants, with all of the water coming from wells that tap into a deep aquifer, Hall said.

In fact, the damage was minimal. Power and the internet never even went out.

Some people had their screened pool enclosures torn up, downed trees, broken fences and signs, and roofs that lost a few shingles, but the community was otherwise unharmed, Hall said.

"I think the feeling for most people is surreal - and amazing blessed," Hall said. "They were told that Babcock Ranch was built to stand up to storms - but you never really know for sure until you see how everything performs when a storm comes. Ian put it to an extreme test."

This community, which didn't have its first residents until 2018, proved it was built for climate resiliency and such an endeavor could not come at a more critical time. And Babcock Ranch is only growing. It's expected to have an eventual population of 50,000, as well as 6 million square feet of commercial space.

Hurricanes are only expected to get stronger and more quickly because of climate change. As the planet warms, so do the oceans. And warmer oceans fuel stronger storms.

"Warming sea-surface temperatures are playing a role, since they provide fuel for hurricanes, which also rely on a moist and unstable atmosphere — all of which are becoming more conducive for strengthening hurricanes in our changing climate," Richard Knabb, a meteorologist and director of NOAA's National Hurricane Center in Miami, previously told CBS News.

Now, with so many in nearby communities still reeling from the hurricane, which has killed dozens, Babcock Ranch residents are working on helping those who were not as lucky. They're working on acquiring and donating mattresses and bedding, clothing and food to hurricane victims. Many. have also opened their homes for power line workers to shower and wash their clothes in between shifts.

"It [is] a constant outpouring of support from Babcock Ranch residents who know how incredibly fortunate they are to have homes and community still intact," Hall said.

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