Hurricane Irma forced hundreds of thousands of Floridians from their homes, including residents at military bases. Key West and Jacksonville saw some of the worst effects of the storm, and are also home to major military installations. But now the bases are returning to normal.
Thousands of service members from across the country flocked to Florida to help recover from Irma. But some of the state’s own forces were in need of support. The Florida Keys saw some of the worst damage. Apart from being home to world-famous beaches, the island chain also supports Naval Air Station Key West. Republican Holly Raschein represents the Keys in the Florida House.
“NAS sustained, what the commander said, minimal damage. Our famous Fly Navy building lost its roof. So it’ll be a little while before that comes back,” she said.
Before the storm shifted to the east, the outlook was dire for low-lying Tampa Bay, and its air force base. General Chip Diehl served as a deputy director there.
“MacDill Air Force Base evacuated the whole base. Because we are six feet above sea level. We’re on the end of that Peninsula. And they did actually evacuate,” Diehl said.
Tampa ultimately dodged the worst of the storm, despite its vulnerable and heavily developed flood zones.
And in Jacksonville, home of Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps contingents?
Admiral Mark Fitzgerald represents the Navy on Florida’s defense support task force.
“Here in Jacksonville we had significant flooding. A lot of trees down. The front of my house looks like a war zone out there with all the rubbish and debris,” Fitzgerald said.
But Fitzgerald says the installations didn’t see the catastrophic flooding that other parts of the city did.
“The bases suffered no major damage. There’s obviously some minor damage from the flooding. It all seems to be going ok. People are back to work, planes are flying,” he said.
One reason there wasn’t more damage is because of storm protocols. The bases didn’t just evacuate people, says Bill Dougherty, a spokesman for Navy Region Southeast.
“The ships sortied. They departed the area to go where it was safe. Aircraft flew to other bases inland, to where it was safe,” Dougherty said.
He says the state’s bases are now more or less up and running, except for Key West. But as of Friday the 22nd, the station is letting families move back. Holly Raschein again.
“The biggest thing for our commanding officer was waiting to bring back non-essential personnel. He didn’t want them coming home without power or sewer or running water. And that has pretty much come back online across all the properties on the base,” she said.
Even amidst the debris, she says there are some telltale signs of normalcy.
“We’ve seen FedEx. Amazon is starting to deliver now, at least in the Upper Keys, so that’s exciting,” she said.
But Dougherty says the storm was still a major disruption.
“Pretty much all the naval aviation training takes place in the southeastern United States. So that mission was impacted by the storms, both Harvey and Irma,” he said.
Each base is looking back on their lessons learned. And Raschein is drafting her own after action report.
“We’re going to be taking a look at the legislative level. Where we can make improvements. And I have a list. I’ve already started a list of where we can make improvements. Not just in the Keys but statewide,” Raschein said.
General Michael Calhoun leads the state’s National Guard. And he says the event still isn’t over.
“We still have guardsmen on state active duty conducting primarily logistics and security support and we will continue as long as we’re needed,” he said.
Irma is a reminder of how vulnerable the state and its bases are to natural disasters. But Dougherty says the storm won’t change the Navy’s long term plans for Florida.
“No, I don’t see anything changing. Because we know that’s a part of…whether you’re in Florida and you’re dealing with hurricanes or you’re in the West Coast and dealing with the big wildfires and things like that, every place has its challenges,” he said.
According to the state Chamber of Commerce, the military and defense industry accounts for 9% of Florida’s economy.
Hurricane season runs through the end of November.