The U.S.’s ‘first solar-powered town’ kept its electricity and water running during Hurricane Ian—and became a model for how to adapt to climate change

October 5, 2022, 9:52 AM UTC
Babcock Ranch, Fla., bills itself as America's first solar powered town, and could be a model for storm resistance.
Jeffrey Greenberg—Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Hurricane Ian could be the costliest storm to ever hit Florida, with property analysts estimating that the cost of damage caused by the Category 4 storm could reach up to $47 billion. That places last week’s tempest among the other most destructive storms in U.S. history, with Katrina topping records at $89.7 billion in damage, adjusted for inflation.

But Ian slammed into Florida at a time when the state’s flood and storm damage protection industry is limping, leaving open the possibility that some victims of the storm will be waiting years for reparations.

In the months preceding Ian’s landfall last Wednesday, six insurance providers covering the Sunshine State went bust, after underwriting losses exceeding $1 billion for the second year in a row. In July the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation placed a further 27 insurance providers on a watchlist over concerns that they are no longer financially viable.

A government-backed insurer, Citizens Property Insurance Corp, assumed liability for the households previously insured under the six now-defunct providers. The number of policyholders under Citizens Property protection has doubled in the past two years. Fallout from Hurricane Ian could easily lead to more bankruptcy in the sector, if a surge in damages claims exceeds the amount insurance brokers have in reserve. More bankruptcies would force more debt on taxpayers by way of government-backed insurance schemes.

The cost to federal coffers could have easily been higher if more Floridians had taken out flood insurance. But the ferocity of the hurricane caused storm surges in areas that aren’t usually prone to flooding. According to Politico, only 29% of households in the nine worst-hit districts have federal flood insurance.

Mohsen Rahnama, chief risk modeling officer at Risk Management Solutions (RMS), told catastrophe bond news site Artemis that “Ian has the potential to be one of the largest catastrophe losses for the insurance industry” and that he believes “this event will change the Florida insurance market landscape.”

Following Ian’s unprecedented impact zone and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) revelation last month that climate change has rendered its flood prediction maps woefully inaccurate, you can expect millions more homeowners to see insurance premiums rise. 

In Florida, a state whose land the Atlantic writer Michael Grunwald describes as “such a soggy mush of low-lying marshes that mapmakers couldn’t decide whether to draw it as land or water,” home owners already pay an average four times more on insurance premiums than elsewhere in the U.S.

If more insurers go bankrupt and homeowners fall into delinquency, flood insurance will become less obtainable for more Floridians, despite the importance of policy ownership growing with climate change. But how bad will it have to get before people stop building and rebuilding homes on low-lying, coastal swamp land?

The southern state is home to the fastest growing residential areas in the U.S., with newcomers drawn by the promise of zero income tax and a year-round summer. The storms are devastating but relatively rare—a compromise most Floridians seem willing to make.

If building is to continue, legislation could at least change to mandate new properties incorporate climate adaptation into their design. Grunwald cites one Florida neighborhood, Babcock Ranch, self-styled as America’s first solar-powered town, that could be a model for redevelopment.

Despite Ian roaring overhead last week, the community of roughly 4,600, surrounded by untouched nature reserves and built 25-feet above sea level, never suffered a loss of electricity—unlike the more than 2.7 million Floridians tied to the state grid. The town’s local wastewater management services ensured the community retained drinking water, and none of the storm-resistant housing blew away.

Incorporating policies like Babcock’s state-wide could potentially lower insurance premiums for all residents.

Eamon Barrett


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