TYNDALL AIRFORCE BASE — Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 hurricane that made landfall in the U.S. since Andrew. Michael was a powerful storm that slowly developed in the Caribbean, then quickly gained strength in the Gulf of Mexico.
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And one year ago, it was headed straight for Tyndall Air Force Base.
“Everybody gets scared. It’s not an experience I’d soon like to repeat," said Col. Brian Laidlaw.
One year later, buildings remain in disrepair and wreckage can be seen everywhere. But the Colonel said that they’re doing about 90 percent of the missions with 80 percent of the people.
“As I walk around the base, I continue to be amazed and humbled by the morale I see," he said.
When it comes to geographic desirability, Tyndall Air Force base is prime: It’s surrounded by water on three sides, butted up to 129 miles of coastline, and has easy access to training areas by the Gulf.
The base, home to the 325th Fighter Wing, has long been an Air Force asset.
But on October 10, 2018, the eye of Hurricane Michael traveled directly over the base.
“We evacuated 11,000 people in 22 hours," Laidlaw said.
High-value aircrafts were flown to other bases for protection.
Meanwhile, the colonel and more than 90 others hunkered down, riding out the Category 5 storm in the base’s emergency operations center.
About two hours before landfall, communications went down. The last report the group received was that the storm had intensified to Category 4 status, with the line headed directly for the base.
“I remember thinking I hope the building holds together. (If the) building doesn’t hold together, this could be a pretty short day," said the Colonel. "When the antennas came off, they peeled the roof with it. We heard the roof rip off. Ceiling tiles started to fill with water and fall in."
Hours later, Laidlaw said that the wind stopped howling, walls stopped shaking. They ventured outside, assuming correctly they were in the eye of the storm. The colonel looking around in disbelief, a surreal scene: trees snapped in half, roofs ripped off and debris strewn everywhere.
“This was not a dress rehearsal. This was the storm that you train for," he said.
But as the military does, they didn’t dwell. Instead, they dove in, surveying the damage and called for help.
“Like a Bomb Went Off”
In the January following the storm, General Patrice Melancon arrived to begin the daunting task of leading the rebuild process.
“I knew there was going to be a lot of devastation. I had no idea the extent," she said. "The Civil Engineer Squadron Complex, it really looks like a bomb went off next to it."
Nearly half of the 484 buildings had to be scrapped. The other half were all damaged, but could be reworked.
On the north side of the base, sheet metal blanketed the ground and white tarps served as short-term fixes for damaged roofs.
Out of the 11 airmen dorms, seven were wiped out. The base hurried to set up a tent city that at its peak housed 1,000 airmen — one that resembled that of a Middle Eastern mission and jokingly garnered the name "Tyraq."
“Even as quickly as we tried to get to buildings we thought were salvageable, the mold had taken over," she said.
As Melacon, a civil engineer, toured the base, she assessed how well buildings had functioned in the places they were before the storm and if they should be rebuilt elsewhere.
They drew up plans to add new technology, like sensors in buildings which would help with efficiency.
They also learned a squadron of F-35 Fighter Jets would be brought to base by October 2023.
Yet, there have been frustrations along the way, namely when it came to waiting for federal funds, holding up the entire process. While Melacon estimated the rebuilding process would take years and cost $4.25 billion, Melacon said that they have received $600 million from the Department of Defense thus far.
“We are prepared to rebuild the base. We just need the funding," she said. “We had heard we’d be getting another supplemental funding stream. We don’t know what that’s going to look like."
As for the Colonel, he remains optimistic the base will get back to full operating capacity and said he wants to be ready for any mission ahead.
“I hope to not let the team down," he said.