Somewhere in there on that Wednesday afternoon two weeks ago was the colonel himself, the commander of Tyndall Air Force Base, here on the coast of the Florida Panhandle. He rode out the storm along with 92 other personnel after thousands under his command had evacuated.
The hurricane peeled off the roof of Laidlaw’s bunker. When the eye arrived and the winds calmed, everyone went outside to survey the damage, and they got a glimpse of blue sky. They retreated as the second eyewall approached. When they emerged again, just before sunset, they beheld total devastation.
Every structure on the base was damaged, its airplane hangars shredded and largely roofless.
While most of the base’s 55 F-22 fighter jets were flown away in advance of the storm, some remained in those hangars due to maintenance issues. Air Force officials have declined to say exactly how many remained, citing operational security, or how damaged they might be.
Each F-22, known as the Raptor, is worth more than $140 million. The planes are considered highly nimble at both supersonic and subsonic speeds, and they keep a small radar signature that makes it hard for adversaries to track. They were first used in combat against Islamic State ground targets in 2014, and they have flown at high altitudes over Syria because their advanced sensors could track Russian aircraft over the battlefield. The Raptors were all in hangars when the storm hit, but they probably suffered at least some surface damage, and that could impair their radar-deflecting technology.
Asked if he could he have done anything differently ahead of the storm to safeguard the stealth fighters, Laidlaw made clear that his highest priority was the safety of the people he commands.
“No one got killed, and no one got hurt. You’ll see what my base looks like. But my people are good,” Laidlaw said as he drove around Tyndall in an SUV with a blown-out window. “I can fix things. I can’t fix people.”
The natural disaster has prompted some fears in Florida that the Air Force could shutter the base, which sits adjacent to badly damaged Panama City and along the same coastline as Mexico Beach, which was nearly wiped from the map.
Lawmakers have sought assurances that the service will rebuild Tyndall, a pillar of the region’s economy and significant Panhandle employer. Air Force officials have said that’s their plan, drawing comparisons to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., which was devastated during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and did not fully recover for about five years.
Damage to Homestead Air Force Base in Florida during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 prompted the temporary transfer of aircraft squadrons to other bases. It was initially targeted for closure afterward, but officials eventually kept it open as a reserve base.
Tyndall is a huge base with significant strategic operations. It’s effectively a city, with 4,500 airmen under Laidlaw’s command — the 325th Fighter Wing, known as the Checkertails. Tyndall has not received much media coverage since the hurricane hit because it was closed to the media until recent days; local television stations got their first look over the weekend, and The Washington Post went on a tour of the base Monday.
The base did not get completely obliterated the way Mexico Beach did, in part because it was on the left side of the hurricane’s eye, and due to Michael’s rotation, the storm surge was to the right. Most of the damage to Tyndall was from the 155 mph sustained winds.
Some of Tyndall’s enormous hangars are visible from U.S. Highway 98, which cuts through the 29,000-acre base. There are unpopulated woodlands — now filled with jackknifed pines, snapped neatly roughly a dozen feet above the ground — along a long stretch of the base.
An official 2018 Economic Impact study estimated that Tyndall contributes $596 million to the local economy each year and that its facilities would cost $3.4 billion to replace. Yearly military payrolls were $276 million, with an additional $94 million for civilians and local businesses.
There were 1,340 buildings on the base before the storm, totaling 5.6 million square feet, including 1.3 million square feet of privatized housing. There also are 62 miles of paved roads, 609,000 feet of electric lines and about 1.2 million feet of water, sewer and storm water lines.
The influence of Tyndall extends far beyond the base perimeter. Many civilian employees live in nearby bedroom communities that were chewed to pieces during the storm. Just across the bridge that connects Tyndall to Panama City, Leon’s Donuts survived, and owner Lin Tung, 67, says he’ll stay in business because he can’t afford to move elsewhere. More than a third of his customers came from Tyndall, he said.
“You decide to live here, and a hurricane is one of the things that happens,” Tung said. “We were due for one for a long time.”
Just up the road in a demolished mobile home park, Jacquie Merrill, 47, who works in flight medicine at Tyndall as a civilian employee, said her home was destroyed by Michael. A major setback for Tyndall would be a major setback for her.
“I’d lose my job — on top of my car and my home and everything else,” she said.
The base’s public information officer, Don Arias, points out a remarkable fact about the base’s history: The government broke ground here on Dec. 7, 1941.
What happened two weeks ago, on Oct. 10, was not exactly Pearl Harbor, but Hurricane Michael did virtually sneak up on everyone. The storm wasn’t even a tropical depression for much of the Columbus Day holiday weekend. Many of the base personnel were expecting a three-day break.
That Friday before the weekend, Laidlaw held a staff meeting. He asked about the upcoming weather. There was some kind of disturbance swirling down near the Yucatan, but he was told the tropics were clear.
The forecast quickly evolved in an alarming direction. Unlike Hurricane Florence, which gave North Carolina almost a week to prepare as it lumbered across the Atlantic, Michael grew rapidly into a hurricane as it rolled north and hit unusually warm Gulf water.
Laidlaw recalled that it was Sunday when he knew he had a problem, and that evening he began pulling jets from their hangars to fly to other bases. The situation grew even more dire when the forecast evolved again, showing Michael becoming a Category 4 hurricane.
That Monday at 5 p.m., Laidlaw ordered a mandatory evacuation of the entire base as well as any personnel in nearby communities, a total of 11,000 people. The last of the operational F-22s were flown away Tuesday morning. Tuesday at 11:30 p.m., he made a final circuit of the base, making sure everything was locked down tight. At midnight, everyone remaining began to shelter in place.
They had trained for hurricanes. But usually they had more time: This went from HURCON 4 to HURCON 1 awfully fast.
In the aftermath, the first order of battle was clearing a runway. The Air Force sent in a Special Operations team. Then came more relief personnel, and by Monday of this week there was a full-blown tent city and finally a huge white tent where everyone could get hot food instead of MREs. About 800 personnel were on site, a number rising by the day.
But most of his people remain scattered. Laidlaw said his wife and children have relocated to a base in Pensacola. The commander deflects questions about the base’s long-term prospects.
“I’m not looking past the next 24 to 48 hours,” he said. “For me right now, it’s what can I do to take care of these people, their families. How do I help them put their lives back together? My people right now, they want to know where they’re going to live. They want to know where their kids are going to school. They want to know what base they’re going to move to.”
Driving around, he gave fist bumps to his people, asking about morale, bantering, trying to keep spirits up. He said the same thing to everyone: “You need anything, you let me know.”
Begos is a freelance journalist based in Florida. Lamothe reported from Washington.