(CNN) — Anthony Grande moved from Fort Myers three years ago in large part because of the risk of hurricanes. He has lived in Southwest Florida for almost 19 years, having experienced Hurricanes Charley in 2004 and Irma in 2017 and seeing what stronger tropical cyclones could do to the coast.
Grande told CNN that she wanted to find a new home where developers prioritize climate resilience in a state that is increasingly vulnerable to record-breaking storm surges, catastrophic winds and historic rainfall.
What he found was Babcock Ranch, just 12 miles northeast of Fort Myers, but apparently light years away.
Babcock Ranch calls itself “America’s first solar-powered town.” Its nearby solar array – made up of 700,000 individual panels – generates more electricity than the 2,000-home neighborhood uses, in a state where most electricity is generated by burning natural gas, a fossil fuel that warms the planet.
The streets of this meticulously planned neighborhood were designed so that the houses do not flood. Native gardens along the streets help control stormwater. Electricity and internet lines are buried to prevent wind damage. Plus, all of this has been done in accordance with Florida’s strict building regulations.
Some residents, like Grande, installed more solar panels on their roofs and added battery systems as an extra layer of protection against power outages. Many drive electric vehicles, making the most of solar power in the Sunshine State.
Climate resilience was built into the fabric of the city by taking into account the strongest cyclones.
So when Hurricane Ian headed toward Southwest Florida this week, it was a real test for the community. The cyclone swept through the nearby areas of Fort Myers and Naples with a record storm surge and winds of more than 100 mph. It left more than 2.6 million customers in the state without power, including 90% of Charlotte County.
But the lights stayed on at Babcock Ranch.
“It certainly exceeded our expectations for a major hurricane,” Grande, 58, told CNN.
The storm uprooted trees and ripped tiles off roofs, but other than that Grande said there is no major damage. Its residents say Babcock Ranch is proof that an environmentally conscious, solar-powered town can withstand the wrath of a near-Category 5 storm.
“Now we have proof of the case because (the hurricane) went over us,” Nancy Chorpenning, a 68-year-old Babcock Ranch resident, told CNN. “We have water, electricity, internet, and we may be the only people in Southwest Florida who are that lucky.”
Grande said Hurricane Ian passed through Southwest Florida “like a freight train.” But he wasn’t afraid of losing everything in a cyclone, like when he lived in Fort Myers.
“We are very, very blessed and fortunate that we are not experiencing what you are experiencing right now on Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach,” Grande said. “In the times that we are living now with climate change, the beach is not the place to live or have a business.”
Syd Kitson, a former professional football player for the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, is the mastermind behind Babcock Ranch. Kitson envisioned it as an innovative green neighborhood, safe and cyclone-resistant like Ian.
The place began in 2015 with the construction of the solar array – which was built and is managed by Florida Power and Light – and its first residents moved into the town in 2018. Since then, the array has doubled in size and thousands of people have made Babcock their home.
“It’s a great case study to show that you can do it right, if you build it in the right place and do it the right way,” said Lisa Hall, a spokeswoman for Kitson, who also lives on Babcock Ranch.
“In all of this, there are a lot of people saying that it has worked, that this was the vision, that this is why we moved here,” Hall told CNN.
Perhaps the biggest boost for the city is that it is now a haven for some of Ian’s hardest-hit victims. The state opened the Babcock Neighborhood School as an official shelter, even though it did not have the required generator. The solar array kept the lights on.
Some of Chorpenning’s friends who live on Sanibel Island — which is now cut off from the mainland after Ian’s devastating storm surge cut off the causeway — took refuge at a friend’s house on Babcock Ranch. It will be a while before they can come back, he said.
“They’re going to rent a house here for a while while they figure out what’s going to happen out there,” he said. “I joked that we may be the only people in Southwest Florida whose property value just went up.”
Even Kitson opted to ride out the cycle at Babcock to see how the community would fare in the hurricane. Kitson declined CNN’s request for an interview; Hall said he is focused on helping neighboring communities rebuild.
“He was there during the hurricane; he said, ‘where else could he be?'” Hall noted. “We built it to be tough and as much as you plan and think you’ve done the right thing, you don’t know until you put it to the test.”
As utilities scramble to restore power across the state, Babcock residents say the September storms showed America’s energy infrastructure is ill-equipped to deal with worsening extreme weather events . Hurricane Fiona devastated Puerto Rico’s power grid when it made landfall there on September 18. Now, Ian has left millions of people in Florida in the dark.
Babcock residents say their neighborhood is a model of urban development in a future devastated by climate change.
“It’s not what it was 20 or 25 years ago, the storms are getting bigger, and it’s no surprise, because the warnings have all been there,” Grande said. “I think the future for Babcock Ranch has gotten even brighter.”