Tyndall Air Force Base Still Faces Challenges In Recovering From Hurricane Michael
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
While the central U.S. struggles with floods and tornadoes, we've been looking at what it takes to come back from a natural disaster. Back on October 10, one of the strongest recorded hurricanes ever to hit the continental U.S. came ashore.
Hurricane Michael was a Category 5. The eye of the storm passed right over a military base in the Florida Panhandle. The storm caused a total of $25 billion in damage, and almost $5 billion of that was at Tyndall Air Force Base. Michael damaged or destroyed every building on base.
TOM BONIFAY: Yeah, it was a mess here. I'll tell you it was a...
SHAPIRO: More than seven months after the storm, a public affairs representative named Tom Bonifay drives us around.
BONIFAY: All right. Let's go to the tower real quick.
SHAPIRO: Oh, wow. Yeah.
We're up here at the top of the tower on the catwalk, and we can get a bird's-eye view over the base where I see more buildings without roofs than buildings with them. And this is after months of intensive repairs.
We drive by a parking lot full of big communal dormitory tents that housed about a thousand people after the storm destroyed permanent housing.
BONIFAY: So right up here is what's left of the tent city where folks were living at. You'll see where they're taking them down now.
SHAPIRO: Taking them down because a new hurricane season starts tomorrow, and these tents may not even withstand a thunderstorm. The county says Tyndall is responsible for a third of the local economy - 25,000 people who live around here are directly connected to the base. So the future of Tyndall is inseparable from the future of this stretch of the Florida Panhandle.
The base commander is Colonel Brian Laidlaw. He made the decision to evacuate 11,000 people from Tyndall and the surrounding areas as Hurricane Michael approached last October. Then he rode out the storm here with a core group of people. In his office, we sit at a table with a color printout showing the radar of the storm's eye directly over the base where we're sitting.
BRIAN LAIDLAW: When you prepare for storms like this and all the way up through the preparations days, hours prior, always in the back of your mind you're thinking to yourself, this is just another drill. The storm's going to dissipate. The storm's going to turn. It can't possibly be that bad.
LAIDLAW: And then when I walked out, took a look around and first thought was, I'm glad we got 11,000 people out of here.
LAIDLAW: And the second thing was, this was the big one. This was the one that we trained to prepare for.
SHAPIRO: I imagine it was hard to even see what had happened on the base because there were trees down everywhere. When you did get your brain around it, like...
SHAPIRO: ...What was your conclusion?
LAIDLAW: When you walked out of one building, certainly every direction that you would look, you see destruction. Debris was everywhere. All the roads were blocked - mostly trees, in some cases power lines. So the initial reaction walking around was, this is a big deal.
SHAPIRO: I'm going to jump way ahead now...
SHAPIRO: ...And ask from that first assessment, until the we finally rebuilt and we're at full capacity, where would you say we are right now at this moment...
LAIDLAW: Oh, wow.
SHAPIRO: ...Halfway through 2019, seven months after the storm?
LAIDLAW: I would say in many ways we are still very much in recovery mode. We've been very judicious about how we spend the resources that we have. As you drive around the base, you'll see a lot of temporary roofs - 12 to 24-month roofs. So...
SHAPIRO: Tent cities and things like that.
LAIDLAW: Well, tent city's a great example. So tent city was a very necessary short-term fix. Within a matter of two weeks, we could bed down a thousand people in somewhere other than offices on cots, which is where we were prior to that. But tent city was a short-term Band-Aid fix. We need to transition from those short-term Band-Aid fixes to those intermediate and long-term solutions.
SHAPIRO: The holdup is Congress. Usually after a big natural disaster, Congress passes a funding bill in weeks to provide money for things like military bases. Congress has been locked in a stalemate over this disaster recovery bill for months. And as a result, the Air Force had to shift around other money to even start Tyndall's recovery. They did that until May 1 and finally said no new contracts at Tyndall until Congress provides the money. And so Colonel Laidlaw told me the major rebuilding has mostly been on pause since then.
LAIDLAW: I can't bring lots of people back until I rebuild my child development center. I can't bring a new and additional airmen in until I rebuild some of the dorms.
So what you start to do is you build this sequential strategy to get us from where we are today, May of 2019, to the point, you know, the finish line in the future, which is when we have long-term sustainable solutions in place, we're delivering all the missions that the secretary tells us to deliver, and we're doing it in, you know, efficient, weather-resilient facilities at some point in time in the future.
So what timeline is that? Well, it absolutely is tied to when we get the green light to go. And as soon as the money shows up to start the base rebuild, we're going to be ready to go. We are ready. They're not - we're not going to be waiting on Tyndall to get to whatever that finish line is.
SHAPIRO: It looks like passage of that disaster recovery bill might finally be in sight. The Senate voted on the package last week. The House will likely vote next week when lawmakers are back from the Memorial Day recess. Then President Trump says he will sign it when it reaches his desk, more than 230 days after Michael made landfall.
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SHAPIRO: Our stories from the Florida Panhandle this week were produced by Becky Sullivan and Noah Caldwell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.