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Innovation at Southwest Florida community could help make Jacksonville homes safer in a storm

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Five hours southwest of Jacksonville near Fort Myers is a community called Babcock Ranch. The community made national headlines last year after it survived Hurricane Ian with little to no damage.

Nearly one year later, Action News Jax Anchor Tenikka Hughes visited Babcock Ranch to learn how the innovation put to work there could help make our homes safer when severe weather hits Jacksonville.

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Driving through Babcock Ranch we saw sunny streets, manicured lawns, and homes with personal touches. Aside from a few downed trees and minor damage, residents told Action News Jax, it’s essentially how their community looked after Hurricane Ian roared through last September.

Babcock Ranch developer and former NFL player Syd Kitson told Action News Jax that it was by design. He rode out Hurricane Ian at his home in Babcock Ranch and assured his neighbors they could do the same. Kitson said, “I told people to shelter at home.”

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Kitson essentially asked his neighbors to trust that years of resiliency planning, innovative and sustainable construction, and other safeguards would measure up when put to one of mother nature’s ultimate tests. In this case, Hurricane Ian.

Kitson said, “As I’m watching this thing just come over us for eight hours. This freight train running through my house for eight hours. I had no idea what was going on outside. All I knew is that we had done everything possible to make sure we didn’t flood and to make sure homes were safe.”

Some of the unique features Kitson says helped the community weather Ian’s blow include the location, strong building codes, and a high-tech stormwater management system.

Babcock Ranch was developed outside of flood zones and elevated beyond the reach of coastal storm surges. All structures there are built to Florida state code, able to withstand 160 miles per hour winds. Babcock Ranch also has a Platinum Certification from the Florida Green Building Coalition. Kitson said several design elements that make homes more sustainable can also help to make them stronger. There is also a high-tech stormwater management system that includes utilizing the land’s natural waterways. Plus, smart pond technology can monitor lake levels and analyze weather forecasts in real-time, which reduces the threat of flood waters reaching homes.

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Kitson said, “But I’ll tell you, if you talk to most people here what was really great, but almost eerie, we never lost power.”

Residents were able to get power from a massive 870-acre solar farm that powers Babcock Ranch. Kitson says Babcock Ranch partnered with FPL to harden transmission lines and the power grid, which allowed the community to draw power from all over the state during Hurricane Ian when others could not.

After the storm, Kitson immediately gathered his team to figure out how to improve ahead of the next one. Green and Sustainable Building expert Dr. Jennifer Languell was a part of the post-Ian huddle. Her family has a home in Ponte Vedra Beach and Babcock Ranch, which is where she took shelter during Ian.

Dr. Languell said, “What if? Really was the challenge by Syd and the ‘what if’ was what if the winds were stronger? What if we had more rain? So, let’s not think that we’re done here because we’re not, we’re going to push to the next level.”

Pushing to the next level through constant assessment and thinking outside of the box. In June, Babcock Ranch held its second summit for builders and developers from across the country to exchange ideas on how to build stronger, more sustainable homes and do it more efficiently.

Languell said, “A lot of people have heard about Babcock and they have a new system or a new product and they want to try it. So, we really do go through kind of a vetting process.”

Some of the builders and developers are then invited to build homes at Babcock Ranch to test out ideas that we could see replicated in homes across Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia in the future.

Kitson said, “There are just so many ideas out there that people don’t even realize exist. So if we give them the opportunity to do it here, to innovate here at Babcock Ranch and have a platform, I think then that can take hold and other people be more confident to do it around the country.”

There are several things you can do to harden your home against severe weather or hurricanes:

  • The Florida Green Building Coalition offers several suggestions for various budgets, to make your home greener or more resilient. Click here.
  • The state of Florida also has the My Safe Florida Home Program that helps eligible homeowners pay for hurricane-hardening improvements to roofs, doors, and windows. Click here.
  • You can also download the Action News Jax First Alert Weather 2023 Hurricane Guide for other ways to prepare and stay safe when severe weather hits. Click here.

Click here to download the free Action News Jax news and weather apps, click here to download the Action News Jax Now app for your smart TV and click here to stream Action News Jax live.

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