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Tyndall Air Force base finds new mission with the billions to be spent repairing hurricane damage

As elected officials and Air Force leaders seek billions to rebuild, the Pentagon says all bases should consider planning for future storms. Next month, the Air Force will visit to begin planning its future.

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE — Signs of devastation are everywhere at Tyndall Air Force Base — buildings destroyed, debris piled in hills at a park, airmen sleeping in rows of tan tents dubbed “TY-raq.”

Still, three months after the Panhandle base suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Michael, restoration work is underway and officials at the highest level have committed to spending the billions it will take to get Tyndall up and running again.

U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, the Republican who represents the district, introduced a measure to spend $4.5 billion rebuilding Tyndall by 2023. Days later, the Pentagon released its report on climate change, reiterating concerns about factoring in climate issues in planning base construction. And next month, engineering and technical experts from the Air Force will visit the base to begin planning its future.

Before the storm, Tyndall hosted the world’s largest collection of F-22 Raptor fighter jets — all redistributed for now — and more than 23,000 troops, dependents, civilians and retirees.

Advocates for the base argue for its future by pointing out its value to both the military and the local economy.

A bible sits among the wreckage of Chapel 2 at the Tyndall Air Force Base. Crews are still working to clear debris and repair damaged buildings nearly three months after Hurricane Michael devastated the area. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]

With easy access to the Gulf of Mexico, pilots here can learn how to fly and fight the world’s most advanced jets over 130,000 square miles of open-water training ground. And nearly 40 percent of the Bay County economy depends on the military.

RELATED: With homes destroyed by Hurricane Michael, ‘We’re not going back to normal’

President Donald Trump and Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott are among those who say they want to see Tyndall rebuilt on the 29,000 acres of peninsula it occupies, from East Bay to St. Andrew Bay southeast of Panama City.

“Tyndall has contributed to national security for a really long time,” said Air Force Col. Brian S. Laidlaw, who is overseeing the restoration efforts. “I am confident that we are going to be able to use this launching pad for our Air Force for the foreseeable future.”

• • •

The flightline at Tyndall Air Force Base is empty and quiet on a blustery January morning.

The roar of Raptors taking off for training over the Gulf of Mexico has been replaced by the whir of power tools as workers in lime green vests and white construction helmets peel away loose roofing from Hangar 5.

Debris fills the aisle of Chapel 2 at the Tyndall Air Force Base on Friday, January 11, 2019 in the Florida Panhandle. Crews are still working to clear debris and repair damaged buildings nearly three months after Hurricane Michael devastated the area. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]

Before the storm, Tyndall was home to 55 of the F-22s in two squadrons — the 95th Fighter Squadron operational unit and the 43rd Fighter Squadron training unit. The base also hosts other units, including the command that oversees critical air defense coverage for the continental United States, the 1st Air Force.

Tyndall took a direct hit from Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10. The Category 4 storm with its 155 mph winds hit the base like a bomb, damaging 17 Raptors valued at more than $300 million each. Hundreds of airmen and their families were displaced when their homes were destroyed. They joined the throngs from outside the gates searching for a place to live.

Some 700 airmen, along with 31 Raptors and up to 17 T-38 Talons, were sent about 80 miles west to Eglin Air Force Base. Many others were sent to bases in Hawaii, Alaska and Virginia.

Laidlaw was part of a small group who rode out the storm.

Sunlight peeks through the damaged roof of Hangar 5 at Tyndall Air Force Base. Crews are still working to clear debris and repair damaged buildings nearly three months after Hurricane Michael devastated the area. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]

He took shelter in the base emergency operations center with about three dozen others as the building shook for hours and water seeped in from the roof. They were cut off from the outside world, with no working phones or internet. When they emerged after the storm passed, Laidlaw and the others took in the devastation.

“It was eerily quiet, and nobody was saying a whole lot,” Laidlaw said from his office near the flightline. “As far as I could see, in every direction every roof was gone or heavily damaged. There were no significant trees still standing. It was surreal.”

RELATED: Panama City kids share stories from Hurricane Michael

The surprise quickly wore away with the reality of what needed to be done, Laidlaw said. His first call, on a satellite phone, was to the Bay County emergency operations center. He let them know that all 93 people who rode out the storm in two buildings at Tyndall were safe.

Then he started to make plans for what to do in the following hours, days and weeks.

The base needed water and portable toilets. It needed security personnel because the fencing was down. Debris had to be removed and communications re-established. Eventually, hangars and other structures would need to be rebuilt. The damaged jets had to be evaluated, repaired and flown out, the training at some point re-established. And most importantly, the men and women who lived and worked at the base needed help.

“We’ve got multiple efforts underway,” Laidlaw said, “to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks.”

• • •

From an office at Eglin, 80 miles west of Tyndall, Air Force Lt. Col. Ryan Wick said the men and women of the 43rd Fighter Wing know well the hardships of upheaval.

The wing, which teaches pilots how to fly the F-22, had to pick up and move to the sprawling base outside Valparaiso. Eglin is the largest base in the Air Force, but accommodating two dozen new aircraft and associated equipment from Tyndall, plus 600 people — pilots and support personnel — proved to be a challenge.

Tom Bonifay, community engagement coordinator with the 325th Fighter Wing, surveys the wreckage of Chapel 2 at the Tyndall Air Force Base. Crews are still working to clear debris and repair damaged buildings nearly three months after Hurricane Michael devastated the area. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]

Eglin had to build a warehouse to store the thousands of parts, tools and equipment needed to keep the sophisticated and finicky F-22s flying.

“I would say it is easier when we show up to a place like Al-Dhafra than show up in a place like this,” said Chief Master Sgt. Patrick Mahoney.

Unlike Eglin, Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates was built to handle F-22 squadrons.

“It has a supply warehouse already there,” Mahoney said.” We just show up, drop our kits off and people are used to it. There are vehicles waiting. There are places to live. You come here and there is not enough dorm space to put the people.”

At any given time, the 43rd is training 14 pilots to send into service. That means about 14 Raptor flights a day. And even before they get into the air, pilots spend hours training on simulators, all still back at Tyndall.

For those uprooted, there is a price.

Wick, the squadron commander, left behind a wife and three young children in Panama City, where —along with surrounding Bay County — nearly 43,000 houses were damaged.

Tents have been erected along what once was a running track to house personnel at Tyndall Air Force Base. Crews are still working to clear debris and repair damaged buildings nearly three months after Hurricane Michael devastated the area. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]

“The biggest burden is on my wife,” Wick said. “She is the general contractor, dialing up the insurance company and working that nightmare. She is taking care of three kids and potty training one of them.”

Master Sgt. Sharika Lee, the wing superintendent, left her 18-year-old son behind to take care of the house and watch his 14-year-old brother.

“There is a lot of trust there,” Lee said.

It’s been tough, she said. The older son just started college and his brother just started high school.

“It’s a challenge, but they are used to it,” Lee said. “They are military brats and we have moved quite often. Fortunately, I have good kids.”

Still, there’s no interruption in the demands of parenting.

“The worst call I get from home is that my 14-year-old is not doing his homework,” she said. “So I have to make sure I am on the phone nightly doing homework together.”

Moving the unit forced change on Mahoney, as well.

He makes the commute between Tyndall and Eglin daily and picked up a new vehicle to save money on gas.

“I had to buy a hybrid,” he said. “The F-350 was killing me.”

• • •

Hundreds of residents, business owners and county officials filled the auditorium of the Florida State University’s Panama City campus the morning of Friday, Jan. 11, for the Bay County Chamber of Commerce First Friday networking event.

The keynote speaker was Laidlaw, Tyndall’s base commander, and he gave an update on the reconstruction.

Shattered windows mark Hangar 5 at Tyndall Air Force Base. Crews are still working to clear debris and repair damaged buildings nearly three months after the hurricane devastated the area.

“The base took a beating and our people took a beating,” Laidlaw told the crowd. “But the recovery effort is remarkable, and the base will be better tomorrow than it is today.”

Laidlaw “is a local legend,” said Tom Neubauer, president of the Bay County Defense Alliance, a nonprofit organization formed to build military-community relations and support the local bases. “His calm presence before, during and after the storm has been comforting and reassuring.”
There is a good reason so many came out to hear him speak.

A study commissioned by the Florida Defense Task Force determined that 31 percent of Bay County’s gross domestic product, valued at about $2.6 billion, comes from the military. In addition to Tyndall, this includes a Navy support base and a Coast Guard base.

Col. Brian Laidlaw, commander of the 325th Wing at Tyndall, walks through the hallway of the 325th Fighter Wing Headquarters while crews work to repair damage from Hurricane Michael. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]

Right after the storm, people were concerned Tyndall would meet the same fate as Homestead Air Force Base, destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in August 1992. Homestead’s F-16 fighter training mission was relocated to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and Homestead eventually was scaled down to an Air Reserve Station.

“The most important thing we could do was get together with our legislative delegation, get in the Pentagon, and make sure the secretary of the Air Force and her team understood how important the base is to the community and then make sure all the missions would come back,” Neubauer said.

More and more, climate change is a factor in where to locate bases. Congress is awaiting a Pentagon report on its most vulnerable bases.

Former Defense Undersecretary John Conger, now director of the Center for Climate and Security, said Hurricane Michael is a red flag for the Air Force.

“It’s absolutely critical to rebuild resiliently,” Conger told the Tampa Bay Times by email. “The Air Force needs to make sure they have their eyes open about the increasing risk throughout the region, and ensure they protect their infrastructure, assets and critical missions in the face of those increasing risks. “

The Air Force understands that, Neubauer said.

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Experts with the service are studying Pacific bases that routinely are buffeted by typhoons in determining the best way to develop what it calls “the base of the future.”

The F-22s won’t be coming back, but Bay County got a boost when Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced that three squadrons of even newer F-35s are on their way. Coupled with a squadron of MQ-9 raptor drones, the change will bring about 5,000 personnel to Tyndall, Rep. Dunn said.

“There were business owners, homeowners and others who didn’t really want to rebuild until they knew for sure that Tyndall was coming back,” Neubauer said.

“They were sitting on their insurance checks, waiting to know.”