Sen. Bill Nelson, who toured Tyndall Air Force Base on Sunday morning and witnessed firsthand the destruction caused by Hurricane Michael, said he will recommend the base be rebuilt.
"The base is destroyed," Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times. He added that it is his "judgment as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee" that Tyndall be rebuilt, because "it is located strategically next to the very critical gulf testing and training range."
Nelson said he expects all the necessary resources and funds will be available to rebuild the entire base, because, he said in a media release, "It is a vital component of our national defense."
Nelson said any fears Tyndall will be closed "are unfounded."
Neither Nelson nor Air Force officials offered an estimate of how much it will cost to rebuild Tyndall or when the work might be completed.
The base, south of Panama City, experienced widespread destruction, including some aircraft that were left behind.
"If there was an older structure, it was demolished," Nelson said. "If it was a newer structure, it generally withstood, though substantial repairs" will be required.
Satellite images provided by DigitalGlobe show extensive damage to the hangars and other facilities on base.
However, in a statement issued late Sunday night, Secretary of the Air Force, Heather A. Wilson, Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein, and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright said their inspection later in the day was a little more hopeful.
"As we drove through the base and assessed the damage, it was clear that the hurricaneís toll was severe in places, especially around the Tyndall flightline," the three said.
The hangars that housed the aircraft left behind "were all intact and looked much better than expected considering the surrounding damage to some structures," they said. "Our maintenance professionals will do a detailed assessment of the F-22 Raptors and other aircraft before we can say with certainty that damaged aircraft can be repaired and sent back into the skies. However, damage was less than we feared and preliminary indications are promising."
Nelson said he was "satisfied" with the reasons base officials gave for not moving some aircraft off the base before Hurricane Michael hit.
Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said Tyndall leadership moved "every aircraft they were able to prior to the hurricane."
However, "two aircraft were forced to ground abort during the evacuation process," she said. "Ultimately, our airmenís lives are more valuable than aircraft."
Neither Nelson nor Stefanek would say what types or how many aircraft were damaged.
"A number of aircraft were left behind in hangars due to maintenance or safety reasons, and all of those hangars are damaged," Stefanek said. "We anticipate the aircraft parked inside may be damaged as well, but we wonít know the extent until our crews can safely enter those hangars and make an assessment."
Tyndall is home to more than two dozen F-22 Raptors, according to a media release from Nelsonís office.
"At a cost of $300 million each, the F-22s are the nationís premier air-to-air fighter jet and a critical part of the Air Forceís tactical air power," the release states.
In addition to the Raptors, Tyndall is home to T-38 Talon subsonic jet trainers, MU-2 Japanese high-wing, twin-engine turboprop aircraft and QF-16s, which are fighter jets converted into drones for target practice.
The F-22s that made it off base were evacuated to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Stefanek said.
She said that on Friday, before the start of the long weekend, the base was prepared for what weather reports said would be a tropical storm.
"Maintenance crews were increased over the weekend to repair as many aircraft as possible, to ensure every flyable aircraft could be evacuated," Stefanek said. "Many could not be repaired due to parts availability."
The first evacuation launch happened Monday morning, she said. The second set of aircraft departed Tuesday before noon.
"At that point crews secured the non-flyable aircraft, and prepared themselves and families to evacuate by the 3 p.m. deadline, as ordered by the wing commander."
Nelson praised base officials for safely evacuating 11,000 personnel and family members with no injuries "in a very short period of time."
One of the first priorities was to get electricity and water running at the base, Nelson said.
"The runway is operating, I flew in there, and while I was there, a big C-17 cargo came in and is off-loading supplies and equipment."
Nelson said the base commander told him one of his first duties "is to get it safe enough so that families that had to leave so quickly can come back and claim their possessions."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.