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 non-essential personnel, stored equipment in protected areas as much as possible, and a team of individuals battened down the hatches in a two-story cinderblock emergency operations center building with almost no windows to ride out the storm on base.
Col. Brian Laidlaw, the 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,” said Laidlaw.
The Category 2 hurricane escalated into a Category 5 within just a few hours.
Hurricane Michael hit the coastline and surrounding areas of Tyndall Air Force Base, Mexico Beach, and Panama City.
“Without question, this was not just a Tyndall event,” said Laidlaw. “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 Air Force Base for a handful of minutes.
“The only reason we knew we were in the eye of the storm was because the walls stopped shaking,” said Laidlaw.
The eye passed. After the second half of the storm ran its course, it was then safe enough that the ride out team could emerge from shelter and survey the damage.
“We recognized very quickly how much work we had to do,” said Laidlaw. “It will probably take five to seven years before the rebuild [of Tyndall Air Force Base] will be complete.
An assessment of the damage concluded that of the 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,” said Laidlaw. “We build the infrastructure in the 1940s and 1950s 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 U.S. Air Force allocated $648 million dollars 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,” said Laidlaw. “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,” said Laidlaw.
“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 was home to two F-22 squadrons including the training school house for that weapons system. Today, some aspects of that mission are still here at Tyndall, like the academics and simulator facility, while others have moved temporarily to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
As for the rebuild of Tyndall, the base is preparing to take on a new mission consistent with the long range goals of the U.S. Air Force.
“The Secretary of the Air Force directed a rebuild to house up to three squadrons of F-35s, and the base remains the preferred alternative for the MQ-9,” said Laidlaw.
According to Laidlaw, Tyndall Air Force Base is a critical asset for the nation’s defense strategy.
“We have some of the best training airspace anywhere in the Department of Defense,” said Laidlaw. “Tyndall has 29,000 acres of land, 70 percent of which are in their natural state and are uninhabited.”
According to Laidlaw, the buffer Tyndall’s 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 is building up forces again.
“Currently, we have 80 percent of the [personnel] we had before the storm,” said Laidlaw. “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 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 Tyndall’s Airmen.
In addition to building replacement dorms for personnel, Tyndall 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 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,” said Laidlaw. “Brigadier General Patrice Melancon, Tyndall Program Management Executive Director, is championing the technologies needed to build the base of the 21st century.”
Tyndall and AFCEC PMO have been working together from the very beginning to get Tyndall back to full capability and ready to accept F-35s and MQ-9s.
“The partnership between the 325th Fighter Wing and the Tyndall Program Management Office following Hurricane Michael has been like no other,” said Melancon. “Colonel 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 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,” said Laidlaw. “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 and] the state of Florida and Bay County is very beneficial,” said Laidlaw. “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,” said Laidlaw. “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 before, during, and after the storm,” said Laidlaw. “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’s Airmen make the base just a little bit better every single day.”