Tyndall Air Force Base, Hit By Hurricane Michael, Resumes More Operations

Feb 11, 2019
Originally published on February 12, 2019 2:31 am
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On Florida's panhandle, Tyndall Air Force Base has resumed many of its operations following a direct hit from Hurricane Michael. The storm's 155-mile-per-hour winds toppled forests, shredded buildings and left the base a mess with its future in doubt. NPR's Greg Allen reports that's no longer the case.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Some jets are flying again - unmanned F-16s. It's a welcome sound at Tyndall. This is one of the nation's largest Air Force bases and in a key location. It's next to the Air Force's testing and training range over the Gulf of Mexico. But that also put it in the path of one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the continental U.S.

DON ARIAS: The eye wall just went right over the base. The eye of the hurricane went right over Tyndall.

ALLEN: Don Arias with Tyndall Public Affairs is driving me around the base. Nearly every building here has some damage. Some of the most dramatic damage is to one of the base's largest buildings, Hangar 5.

ARIAS: You can see this hangar here. It's just...

ALLEN: The roof is just totally shredded and gone. I guess there's a few panels still left but not much.

ARIAS: No. You can see the girders and the bow truss construction from here. But yeah, it's a shame.

ALLEN: Before the storm hit, the Air Force removed from the base all aircraft that could fly. All personnel evacuated except for a small detail left to oversee base security. Lieutenant Chris Hastings (ph) was part of that detail - the ride-out team.

LIEUTENANT CHRIS HASTINGS: The first wall hit us pretty rough. We lost some of our building. When that happened, it ended up causing a lot of insulation to fly everywhere. You can feel the wind going around. You can hear it roaring outside. And you're just button up doors, getting people in - consolidated into one spot.

ALLEN: By the end of the day, Hastings and other members of his team went outside to assess the damage. He says the amount of debris was overwhelming.

HASTINGS: There was a lot of trees, a lot of debris, sheet rock. But the - most of it, to be honest, was the metal roofing and metal sides of buildings that were just strewn across everywhere.

ALLEN: Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson visited the base just four days after the storm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HEATHER WILSON: It's going to take time to recover. Anybody who can see this base even from where we're standing can see the substantial damage that was done by this terrible storm.

ALLEN: Today nearly all that debris is gone. Tyndall has already spent nearly $200 million on cleanup and recovery. After Wilson's visit, the Air Force announced it would rebuild the base and make it a model for the future. Congressman Neal Dunn, who represents the area, says that reassured many who feared the base might not reopen.

NEAL DUNN: That was the first worry everybody had because 37 percent the economic activity in Bay County is related to Tyndall Air Force Base - so very, very key to get Tyndall stood back up.

ALLEN: Between people who work there, students who go to school there and retirees who shop there, some 26,000 people rely on the base daily. Because of damage to hangars and other facilities, F-22 Raptor stealth fighters at Tyndall were relocated to other bases. But Dunn says there are big plans for the facility when it's rebuilt. The Air Force wants to base three squadrons of its newest fighter, the F-35, at Tyndall. Dunn says there are also plans to base two dozen MQ-9 Reaper drones there by 2023.

DUNN: So we're looking at almost a hundred combat aircraft based out of Tyndall. And it'll actually be busier than it was before the storm.

ALLEN: But there's a lot of work to do before then. Colonel Scott Matthews is a civil engineer with the Air Force, part of a group that's working to rebuild Tyndall. One focus now is the control tower which took extensive damage in the storm.

COLONEL SCOTT MATTHEWS: Some debris pierced through a double-paned glass in the tower, came inside, shot out the other side and caused a bunch of damage in there. So we had to completely gut the interior cab. And we're working to bring in the communications, the consoles and the glass.

ALLEN: Matthews' group is doing more than that. They're developing a new master plan for Tyndall. He says the devastation from Hurricane Michael left the Air Force with an opportunity to redesign the facility into what he calls the base of the future.

MATTHEWS: We at the Air Force believe this can be our first purpose built 21st century installation, and so we want to adapt new technologies. We're talking smart buildings. We're talking layouts and get away from some of the way we used to have our 20th century installations.

ALLEN: The new base is expected to cost some $3 billion. Matthews says Tyndall will be rebuilt to be resistant to storm surge and wind speeds up to 180 miles per hour. Greg Allen, NPR News, Tyndall Air Force Base. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.