October 02, 2017

Babcock Ranch withstands Irma full force

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

Charlotte Sun




EAST OF PUNTA GORDA — Due to a last-minute change in course, Hurricane Irma moved east of Charlotte County’s population centers, sparing most residents the worst of her wrath. But her new path took Irma directly through Babcock Ranch, an innocent newborn when it came to defending itself against a major hurricane.

“We had the eye of the hurricane come right over us,” developer Syd Kitson said.

Irma brought with her 130mph winds and “a ton of rain,” he said, but his fledgling community stood up to her power. With residents yet to move in, there was no danger to human life. But a storm of this magnitude — a Category 3 when she tore through eastern Charlotte — would leave its mark.

The model homes and buildings on site suffered minor damage, some trees were upended and an inexplicable power outage kept the downtown area dark for four days. Also, State Road 31, the main road leading to the massive development that one day will host 19,000 residences, was shut down for a week due to flooding.

“We’re pretty proud of how Babcock Ranch withstood the hurricane, but we want to do better,” Kitson said.

Weathering the storm with minimal impacts demonstrated the benefits of locating on high ground beyond the surge and building to more stringent building codes, he said. Babcock Ranch, spread out over 91,000 acres, is about 30 feet above sea level, laying claim to one of the higher elevations in Southwest Florida.

Five-hundred acres of lakes also helped prevent flooding in the community, which received 12 inches of rain just a week before Irma arrived, soaking the ground until it could hold no more water. In fact, Kitson said, a specially designed chain of lakes along S.R. 31 actually mitigated flooding on the roadway, contrary to assumptions that the development may have contributed to the road closure.

“It’s quite the opposite. We’ve taken a lot of water off the road,” he said.

In addition, when gas stations along S.R. 31 shut down due to a temporary fuel shortage in the hurricane’s wake, Babcock Ranch had enough gas stored in large tanks for employees and construction workers. As for the electrical failure in the self-proclaimed “first solar-powered town in America,” the cause remains a mystery. The 74.5-megawatt Solar Energy Center, owned and operated by Florida Power & Light, continued to power the FPL substation, located next to the town’s water and wastewater utility.

But for some reason the substation, after the worst of the storm had passed, failed to feed electricity to the downtown through its underground lines. No repairs were ever needed and the power switched on of its own accord four days later, Kitson said.

“This was a great opportunity for us to learn because nobody is living here yet. We learned a lot of good lessons,” he said.

Recognizing the benefits from the real-life drill, Kitson is considering opening up Babcock Ranch as a shelter during future hurricanes.

“We built it to be storm-safe. People will be able to shelter here safely,” he said.

But that additional role will have to wait until all the main structures are completed.

Already in operation are the Table & Tap restaurant, featuring a farm-to-table dining experience; Curry Creek Outfitters, providing equipment to explore the town’s trails and lakes; and Babcock Neighborhood School, a K-6 public charter school with 156 students.

In addition, Slater’s general store and coffee shop is about to debut, followed by a February opening of the wellness center, where a medical group will run therapeutic programs and facilities that include a gym, fitness center and pool.

By the first quarter of next year, the initial wave of homeowners will take up residence and a grand opening is planned. Before then, in November, a preconstruction builders’ event will introduce their model homes to the public.

“The vision we had is coming to life,” Kitson said.