In the wake of Hurricane Ian, two Florida communities prove the power of climate adaptationOctober 4, 2022
By Rebecca Verity – Senior Climate Adaptation Scientist
How building climate resilience into our communities saves homes, saves lives, and preserves the infrastructure we need to thrive.
In the midst of the tragedy, devastation, and heroism left in the wake of Hurricane Ian, two very different stories stand out. Both offer hope and confidence that, despite the devastating increase in the frequency and intensity of big weather events, climate adaptation can, and does, preserve communities in the face of extraordinary, dangerous weather.
The first story, as reported by the Washington Post, details the survival of Punta Gorda. Located on Florida’s west coast, the town was decimated by Hurricane Charley in 2004 and struck again last week, in a remarkably similar path, by Hurricane Ian. When Ian struck, however, the damage was surprisingly minimal. The reason? Building codes. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida upgraded state building codes to improve hurricane safety. After Hurricane Charley, the town of Punta Gorda further strengthened local codes. In 2007, Punta Gorda enacted some of the most stringent building codes in the state. The homes rebuilt after Charley were mostly built to those new codes.
“In the aftermath of Ian, the buildings left still standing seemed to have at least one thing in common,” said local building contractor Joe Schortz to the Washington Post. “Everything with a 2007 code and beyond pretty much was fine.”
The importance of updated, climate-resilient building codes has been nationally recognized. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) believes so deeply in the importance of strong building codes that, when rating projects this year for their $2 billion in community resilience grant funds, FEMA will award 35% of an application’s technical score based on the strength of the project’s relevant building codes. But many Americans only hear about building codes when they come up during a home construction project, when codes are often portrayed as expensive, burdensome hurdles.
And yet, strong building codes ensure that buildings in regions subject to hurricanes and tornadoes are built to withstand extreme wind, by ensuring critical items such as solid connections between walls and roofs. In earthquake country, codes ensure buildings are bolted to foundations and have the structural reinforcements needed to withstand ground movement. While it’s true that complying with strict building codes is not always cheap, the money spent on code compliance has repeatedly proven to be worth many times that initial investment in averted damage when disaster strikes.
While Punta Gorda’s new homes were left intact by the power of Ian thanks to strong codes, not all the town’s critical infrastructure survived unscathed. Days after the storm, the town still lacks both power and clean water, posing an additional challenge to residents hoping to return or struggling to remain.
For an example of climate resilience to those two critical lifelines, Babcock Ranch, 19 miles east of Punta Gorda, stands as an impressive testament to adaptive planning. As CNN reports, the power stayed on and drinking water still runs here. Launched by former Green Bay Packer, Syd Kitson, Babcock Ranch is a new community designed with climate resilience as an underlying principal. To minimize flood damage, the town was situated at 30 to 40 feet above sea level, well above regionally projected storm surge heights. Nearby coastal towns, such as Punta Gorda, and the devasted Fort Myers, are built as low as 6-12 feet above sea level. Flooding doesn’t just come from the ocean during hurricanes: rains can be deadly, too. Flooding from intense rains in Babcock Ranch is minimized by streets and landscaping specifically designed to move water away from homes.
Babcock Ranch also calls itself “America’s first solar-powered town” for a reason. Currently, all 2,000 homes are fully solar powered, both by individual home panels, and by a 7,000-panel solar and battery array which provides energy independence and minimizes carbon use. Power and internet lines were installed underground to avoid wind damage, a choice that was proven successful last week.
Residents say that Ian came over them “like a freight train,” but the town survived with no major damage.
“We have proof of the case now because [the hurricane] came right over us,” said Nancy Chorpenning, a 68-year-old Babcock Ranch resident in an interview with CNN. “We have water, electricity, internet — and we may be the only people in Southwest Florida who are that fortunate.”
Resident Anthony Grande moved out of Fort Myers only three years ago, specifically to find a home robust to climate change. “It certainly exceeded our expectations of a major hurricane,” Grande told CNN. “We’re very, very blessed and fortunate to not be experiencing what they’re experiencing now in Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach.”
Strong building codes, floodable streets, native plantings in prolific greenspaces, building outside of the floodplain, undergrounding vulnerable utilities, and providing microgrids and energy independence? These good-sense building practices protect against a vast array of climate challenges, not just hurricanes. They are a few of many critical practices in preventing the tragedy and loss that is rocking Florida this week.
In the years I have spent building a career in climate adaptation and resilience, I, like many climate practitioners, have faced the emotional challenges that come with uncertain outcomes in the face of extreme hazards. I have described my job as: “Feeling like an ER doctor – trying every day to save lives in the face of disaster. But unlike that doctor, I don’t get to go home knowing if I’ve failed or succeeded. I may never know if a single life was saved by my work. I just keep facing the hazard.”
These two stories, of Punta Gorda and Babcock Ranch in Florida, should give all adaptation practitioners some peace of mind. The work we do, the strategies we recommend, the resilience we preach, were tested by Ian, and they stood the test. America: Take note. We are all threatened by rising seas, stronger storms, more frequent floods, and more deadly droughts, heat, and wildfire. Building climate resilience into our communities saves homes, saves lives, and preserves the infrastructure we need to thrive. Let’s get to work and do good in the world. And as always, let me know if GEI can help you design and build resilience, to protect what matters most to you.