Hurricane Michael’s surge across an Air Force base last week wreaked enough devastation that the service is considering transferring away some airmen and families until the base is rebuilt, military officials said Tuesday.
Tyndall Air Force Base on the Florida Panhandle suffered a direct hit from the Category 4 storm on Oct. 10, prompting fears that jets the service could not fly away in advance were destroyed. On Wednesday, the Air Force will begin allowing families to visit their homes to collect valuables and take photographs, but it is expected to take years for the base to fully recover.
Brig. Gen. John Allen Jr., the service’s director of civil engineers, compared the storm’s destruction to what Hurricane Katrina caused in 2005 when it ravaged Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. In that case, the base took nearly five years to make a full recovery.
“You can imagine what kind of effort lays ahead of us,” Allen said.
Florida’s U.S. senators, Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D), along with Rep. Neal Dunn (R), in letters to President Trump and the Defense Department, have urged the administration to affirm their commitment to rebuilding the Tyndall base and expedite the repair work there.
Airmen and their families are displaced all over the region, though most are still on the Panhandle while staying in hotels, with friends or in shelters. Nearby military installations, including Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field, are assisting some of them.
“We’re going to have to make some serious decisions on which families come back to that base or not,” said Brig. Gen. Edward Thomas, who visited the base Sunday.
Numerous F-22 Raptors, worth more than $140 million each, are still in hangars that were damaged or destroyed in the storm, Thomas said. The Air Force flew as many planes out of the path of the storm as it could, but a number of them were left behind because they were undergoing maintenance or awaiting new parts. Service officials have declined to say how many were damaged.
Thomas said none of the Raptors that faced Michael were destroyed, but a lengthy assessment will be needed to determine what repairs they require. Visually, all of the jets are intact, and it appears that the hangars mostly protected them even as the buildings were battered by the storm, he said.
Once the Raptors are pulled from the debris, the Air Force will decide how best to repair them. At least five temporary hangars, each capable of holding two F-22s, will be constructed on the flight line.
Thomas said he was struck during his visit to Tyndall by how directly the flight line was hit by the storm. On one side, most trees had been knocked over in one direction, he said. On the other, they were knocked over in the opposite direction. The eye of the storm had crossed right overhead.