TYNDALL AFB, Fla. --- In the early hours of Oct. 10, 2018, many communities in Northwest Florida prepared for a storm expected to make landfall as a Category 2 hurricane.
Tyndall Air Force Base was also preparing for the storm named Hurricane Michael.
Base leaders evacuated nonessential personnel, stored equipment in protected areas as much as possible and a team of individuals battened down the hatches in a two-story cinder block emergency operations center building with almost no windows to ride out the storm on base.
Col. Brian Laidlaw, 325th Fighter Wing commander, was one of the individuals who stayed during the storm. The “ride-out team” was ready for a Category 2 hurricane.
However, the scene soon changed. “We realized very quickly that this would be the storm we had trained for,” Laidlaw said. The Category 2 hurricane escalated into a Category 5 within just a few hours.
Hurricane Michael hit the coastline and surrounding areas of Tyndall AFB, Mexico Beach and Panama City.
“Without question, this was not just a Tyndall AFB event,” Laidlaw said. “This was a Northwest Florida event. The whole area took a hit. Thankfully we were in a secure building to wait out the storm.”
As the storm progressed, the eye of the hurricane passed over Tyndall AFB for a handful of minutes. “The only reason we knew we were in the eye of the storm was because the walls stopped shaking,” Laidlaw said.
The eye passed. After the second half of the storm ran its course, it was safe for the ride-out team to emerge from their shelter and survey the damage.
“We recognized very quickly how much work we had to do,” Laidlaw said. “It will probably take five to seven years before the rebuild (of Tyndall AFB) will be complete.”
An assessment of the damage concluded that 484 buildings on base were destroyed or damaged beyond repair, while the other half were stable enough to sustain repairs.
“This base has been here for 79 years and most structures pre-date modern day building codes,” Laidlaw said. “We built the infrastructure in the 40s and 50s and repurposed it many times over the years. It was important, very soon after the storm, to bring in engineers to take a close look at the base. As we did so, we learned what worked and what didn’t work.”
According to Laidlaw, the Air Force allocated $648 million for immediate repairs. To get the base back to pre-storm capacity will require more time and more funding in the future.
One of the first concerns was how to make the base available to accept relief forces.
“The Air Force and our joint partners sent us relief just a little faster than we were able to take it,” Laidlaw said. “We saw an outpouring of support from the Air Force, and other organizations, to get us back on our feet."
“Much like many communities across Florida, our community is fiercely protective of our Airmen and the missions we have here,” Laidlaw said. “We have to make the base compatible not only for today’s missions but for those of the future and to protect assets and aircraft we haven’t even invented yet.”
Prior to Hurricane Michael, Tyndall AFB was home to two F-22 Raptor squadrons including the training school house for that weapons system. Today, some aspects of that mission are still here at Tyndall AFB, like the academics and simulator facility, while others have moved temporarily to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
As for the rebuild of Tyndall AFB, the base is preparing to take on a new mission consistent with the long-range goals of the Air Force.
“The secretary of the Air Force directed a rebuild to house up to three squadrons of F-35A Lightning IIs, and the base remains the preferred alternative for the MQ-9 Reaper,” Laidlaw said.
According to Laidlaw, Tyndall AFB is a critical asset for the nation’s defense strategy.
“We have some of the best training airspace anywhere in the Department of Defense,” Laidlaw said. “Tyndall AFB has 29,000 acres of land, 70% of which are in their natural state and are uninhabited.”
According to Laidlaw, the buffer Tyndall AFB acreage and 129 miles of coastline provides, allows for testing and training that is invaluable and free from encroachment. The base takes great pride in maintaining the land in its natural state.
Almost one year after the storm, Tyndall AFB is building up forces again.
“Currently, we have 80% of the (personnel) we had before the storm,” Laidlaw said. “As we recover the base we’ve transitioned from living in offices, to living in tents, to living in modern facilities and, in some cases, in repaired dorms and lodging rooms."
“We no longer have any Airmen living in tents” he continued. “We moved our Airmen from these short-term temporary tents into facilities to hold us over until we fully rebuild.”
Tyndall AFB had 11 operational dormitories available when Hurricane Michael hit. Only three survived the storm but required immediate repairs before personnel could move in. Currently, there are four dorms available for housing Airmen.
In addition to building replacement dorms for personnel, Tyndall AFB has the enormous task of rebuilding other buildings across the installation. For this task, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center Program Management Office stood up a unit on Tyndall AFB to coordinate the construction efforts.
“We are going to combine multi-purpose facilities, which will give us fewer buildings, but we will get much more use out of them,” Laidlaw said. “Brig. Gen. Patrice Melancon, Tyndall AFB Program Management executive director, is championing the technologies needed to build the base of the 21st century.”
Tyndall AFB and AFCEC PMO have been working together from the very beginning to get Tyndall AFB back to full capability and ready to accept F-35s and MQ-9s.
“The partnership between the 325th Fighter Wing and the Tyndall AFB Program Management Office following Hurricane Michael has been like no other,” Melancon said. “Col. Laidlaw’s leadership has been instrumental to the base’s success. I am so very proud of the dedicated Airmen, civilians, and contractors who flew in from around the country with their sleeves rolled up ready to work. These dedicated individuals have literally moved mountains of debris and worked to repair key buildings quickly this past year to get critical base missions back online.”
According to Melancon, Tyndall AFB will be ready for an F-35 mission by October 2023.
“The rebuild will support a 21st century mission while also focusing on structural resiliency and efficiency,” Laidlaw said. “The people who are here want to be here. We have the right experts in the right areas."
“When an event like this happens, it becomes a team effort,” he continued. “I do think there’s a story to tell. We’ve learned a lot, and the communities around us have learned a lot, and we are happy to share what we have learned."
“The (partnership between Tyndall AFB and) the state of Florida and Bay County is very beneficial,” Laidlaw said. “It will take a long time to recover. Like us, our community takes great pride in taking care of our Airmen and our mission."
“I never thought we’d come this far so fast,” Laidlaw said. “It’s hard to believe it’s been a whole year. Our people are amazing. We have the right people in the right places with the right resources, and they have accomplished so much.”
“There have been some great Airmen, both military and civilian, at Tyndall AFB before, during and after the storm,” Laidlaw said. “Their hard work and determination have sustained our momentum through twelve long months."
“I can’t imagine where we would be without these people and the support from their families,” he continued. “The reality is, (you can replace buildings, but) you can’t replace people. The mission needs Airmen. Tyndall AFB’s Airmen make the base just a little bit better every single day.”