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Damaged Panhandle Military Bases Continue Recovery A Year After Hurricane Michael

A year ago, Hurricane Michael steamrolled through the Florida panhandle, damaging nearly everything in its path—including three military bases along its route—Tyndall Air Force, the Navy’s naval support facility, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Blaise Gainey reports on efforts to fix what the storm broke.

Tyndall Airforce Base is a construction zone.

"Wow, look at the power to snap that," Tyndall Spokesman Don Arias says as he points to the skeletal remains of a fallen airplane hangar, its metal girders, twisted and mangled on the ground. A tractor tears away at its remains. The machine looks tiny, compared to the fallen building.

Construction machinery breaks down what's left of Hangar 5 on Tyndall Air Force Base
Credit Blaise Gainey / WFSU-FM
Construction machinery breaks down what's left of Hangar 5 on Tyndall Air Force Base.

Other hangers, most in better shape, line the runway, standing sentinel as a fighter jet takes off on the other end.

“We are effectively starting from scratch," says Brigadier General Patrice Melancon as she sits in her office in one of the few buildings that escaped serious damage. 

She’s in charge of overseeing a massive, 3-billion dollar rebuild of the base.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The last time we built a base from scratch was maybe in the ’80s," explains Melancon.

After Hurricane Michael, only three of the base’s 11 housing units were still standing. That’s where 93 airmen, along with Col. Brian Laidlaw lived, before the storm. “It was really loud. The building we were in lost its roof during the first half of the storm, and then the wind just stopped—it got so quiet we took a peek outside.”

I asked if they evacuated that building. Laidlaw said, "there was nowhere to evacuate, you wouldn’t have survived outside.”

Laidlaw and his airmen have remained on base since then, working on recovery. Congress recently allocated $500 million toward the reconstruction project. It’s expected to take seven years. 

A day after Michael, the U.S. Navy was out surveying the damage to its facilities, located just 12 miles to the West of Tyndall. That distance, while small, meant the Navy, along with the Coast Guard, were largely spared the worst.

“What we saw from the air was a lot of downed trees. Once we were on the ground, we saw that the damages weren’t so much to the buildings themselves we had a lot of roof damage," says Buczek.

At Tyndall, half the buildings are gone. Buczek says only about 14% of the Navy’s buildings were destroyed. 

“Within three weeks following the storm, we were able to bring housing residents back in," explains Buczek.

The damage to the Naval base is estimated at 182 million dollars. Congress has allocated 73.5 million to the effort. Unlike Tyndall, the Navy is just trying to get back to where it was before the storm. That’s expected to take four years to complete. 

In the meantime, all three bases are operational, if not whole. And Buczek says that’s due to the people who make up the recovery, damage assessment, and contractor teams.

“It was just fantastic that we were able to get the base up and operational within a month after the storm had hit," says Buczek. "And I think that’s a testament to the folks that work and live here for that to happen.”

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.