At Tyndall Air Force Base, Human Resilience Trumped Nature's Wrath

Col. Brian Laidlaw, 325th Fighter Wing commander, and other representatives from Tyndall Air Force Base and its partners,facilitated a tour to a congressional delegation focusing on communicating Hurricane Michael recovery and rebuild updates, a current mission brief, a windshield tour of mission support facilities including the dining facility, dormitories, temporary lodging and the fitness center, Oct. 7, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/Magen M. Reeves)
Col. Brian Laidlaw, 325th Fighter Wing commander, and other representatives from Tyndall Air Force Base and its partners,facilitated a tour to a congressional delegation focusing on communicating Hurricane Michael recovery and rebuild updates, a current mission brief, a windshield tour of mission support facilities including the dining facility, dormitories, temporary lodging and the fitness center, Oct. 7, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/Magen M. Reeves)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE -- The graphic image from space of Hurricane Michael passing over this military airfield, its twin runways clearly visible in the center of the eye, should be the iconic symbol of what happened here a year ago.

The image caught from a weather satellite and superimposed on a computer map of Bay County demonstrated human technology at its apex, capturing the deadly cyclone as it scoured the terrain of eastern Bay County. It also caught the moment where nature's wrath overcame human technology as the 130-mile-per-hour winds and torrential rain all but destroyed this 78-year-old Air Force base as its commander and a small hand-picked team cowered in an underground shelter.

Yet Col. Brian Laidlaw, commander of the 325th Fighter Wing both before and after the storm, disagrees.

"The photograph showed the entire 15-mile-wide eye of the storm," Laidlaw agreed in a recent interview. "It completely encompassed Tyndall ... the 29,000 acres of Tyndall are in the middle, and the runways are smack dab in the middle" of the image.

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Nevertheless, in the year since Hurricane Michael, Laidlaw said he has collected a rich body of evidence that shows a different -- and more uplifting -- symbol of what has happened at Tyndall Air Force Base. As he and thousands of military personnel and civilian contractors have labored 24/7 to bring the base back to life, Laidlaw said, the resilience and dedication of the Tyndall community has supplanted the mere images of destruction.

It started slowly.

When the storm had passed on Oct. 11, the prospect of resurrecting Tyndall appeared too daunting to even imagine. Of the 484 buildings and structures on the 14.5-square-mile facility, one-half were totally destroyed or suffered sufficient damage to make repairs unfeasible. The flight line was reduced to rubble. The control tower sustained severe flooding in its top three floors when the windows blew out. Most of the base's 663 housing units were flattened or seriously damaged by the wind and torrential rain. Debris and downed trees by the hundreds clogged the streets. Most of Tyndall's 3,600 military personnel and family members -- 11,000 in all -- were refugees in their own country, having evacuated before Michael struck.

But "hopeless" was not a word that Laidlaw, his leadership team, or their superiors in the Air Force ever embraced. Because of its vital location near the Gulf of Mexico and an extended air combat training range shared with Eglin Air Force Base, closing Tyndall was never an option, Laidlaw said on many occasions this past year.

With the firm support from the president and Air Force leadership on down, Laidlaw and a team of civil engineers in the first weeks after the storm began the initial steps toward reclaiming the base. Their nonstop effort over the past 11 months has begun to show concrete results.

To date, the Air Force has spent $700 million for repairs and renovations at Tyndall, and Laidlaw said when the 2019-20 fiscal year starts on Oct. 1, he anticipates receiving another $577 million from the disaster aid supplemental appropriation passed by Congress in June. The remainder of what will likely top $3 billion in military construction funds is anticipated to come during the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years.

"We're getting the job done," Laidlaw said in a recent interview. "We've got a lot of people working just like they were prior to the storm, We've got airplanes flying off the runways like they did prior to the storm."

To date, contractors have nearly finished work restoring the more than 240 buildings that suffered damage but were repairable, Laidlaw said. "The recovery is going very, very well."

One of the most significant milestones occurred in April, when workers completed rebuilding the air traffic control tower, Laidlaw said. In early May, restoration of essential flight line equipment and aircraft shelters enabled the command to host the 2019 Checkered Flag exercise, an intense two-week program that brought in 60 combat aircraft and more than 800 personnel from all over the Air Force for air-to-air combat drills that include live missile firings over the Gulf of Mexico.

Moreover, Laidlaw said he is especially proud that despite the great amount of work that still needs to be done at the base, most of its core missions have fully resumed.

Even though the wing's fleet of F-22 Raptors remains stationed at Eglin and Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, the maintenance and support functions at Tyndall are operational again, and are being used to service the fifth-generation fighters. Laidlaw said about one-third of the F-22 "maintainers" are working at Tyndall with the remainder assigned at Eglin.

"We do bring the F-22s back here to Tyndall" from Eglin, Laidlaw said. "We're operating out of both places."

Describing the overall recovery effort as currently being in "the first or second inning," Laidlaw said the main bulk of constructing a state-of-the-art, 21st-century Air Force installation has yet to occur. This includes designing, planning and constructing more than 200 offices, shops and other facilities to replace those destroyed by the storm.

"We are running fast," Laidlaw said. "We are repairing quickly, and we are building quickly here on the base."

Laidlaw said that two developments he and his leadership team experienced in the past year have left a lasting imprint.

The first, he said, has been the deep support that the base and its people have gotten from the wider Bay County community.

"It's fair to say that Tyndall Air Force Base and Bay County have grown up together in the last 80 years," Laidlaw said. "An event like this has highlighted to me just how valuable this relationship is."

Equally profound, the colonel added, has been the dedication shown by the thousands of airmen and their families who endured weeks of stress after they evacuated the base, returned to find their homes uninhabitable, yet stuck to their responsibilities as the recovery work went on.

"They have shared a sense of purpose that can be attributed only to being involved in something larger than themselves," he said.

One example of this was particularly moving, Laidlaw said. When the recovery began, the Air Force temporarily assigned over 1,000 airmen from other bases to Tyndall to help with the effort. As Tyndall's permanent cadre began returning in strength, the service returned the temporary personnel to their home bases.

Laidlaw said he was stunned to learn that "large numbers" of those people then requested permanent reassignment back to Tyndall to continue work in the recovery. "They felt so good working here," Laidlaw said. "They wanted to remain a part of something special."

This article is written by Ed Offley from The News Herald, Panama City, Fla. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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