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Naval air station, home of the Blue Angels, lies in tatters

The home of the Blue Angels was battered by Hurricane Ivan.

It will be weeks before the Pensacola Naval Air Station will be back to normal after hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to hangars and historic buildings.

"We were the first ones to show up, so we're the first ones to clean up," said Petty Officer Wayne Buchanan, 25, an electronics teacher.

Nearly 180 years after President John Adams commissioned this Navy base on the strategic shores of Pensacola Bay to help protect the Gulf of Mexico, the air station where Navy aviators earn their wings is bruised and broken. All 2,000 buildings on the base, including 577 homes, are believed to have been damaged.

But no one was injured. "That's the best news we had," Pruitt said.

All but 200 of the base's 12,000 population, including students, were evacuated.

Its picturesque historic port is reduced to windowless, doorless and roofless buildings, some of them partially collapsed.

The careful symmetry of Barrancas National Cemetery, where graves date to the Civil War and more than 30,000 veterans are buried, is disrupted by fallen oaks.

Modern bayfront barracks are sodden, the tin roofs ripped and rolled.

Only the fortified walls of the two-centuries-old Fort Barrancas, which stands on the bluff that lured Spanish explorer Don Tristan de Luna in the 16th century, appear untouched.

"Down by the port area was almost catastrophic," said base commander Capt. John Pruitt, who spent Hurricane Ivan holed up in the base's fortified command center. "We were stunned."

In 1992, after Hurricane Andrew tore through southern Miami-Dade County, the U.S. Air Force abandoned Homestead Air Force Base rather than rebuild.

But Pruitt said there's no such talk about Pensacola. The Navy is very mindful of trying to sustain historical structures.

Fresh after arriving from Nantucket, Mass., where the Blue Angels _ the Navy's flight demonstration team _ canceled a performance for this weekend, the team's leader, Cmdr. Russ Bartlett, toured the base with Chief Petty Officer Louis Arrazola and Master Chief Petty Officer Kevin Harris.

"It would be disingenuous to be flying air shows when we can be doing good work here," said Bartlett, who had ordered the Fat Albert C-130 transport plane used to support the Blue Angels team to be unloaded to make way for some cargo missions to ferry supplies and resources to the base.