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At Tyndall Air Force Base, a ‘Complete Loss’

As Hurricane Michael tore across the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, shredding buildings and homes in its path, the mostly empty Tyndall Air Force Base braced for a ferocious impact.

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Dave Philipps
, New York Times

As Hurricane Michael tore across the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, shredding buildings and homes in its path, the mostly empty Tyndall Air Force Base braced for a ferocious impact.

A wind gauge surged to 130 mph, and then broke. Hangars where Air Force jets have sheltered during past tropical storms began to groan and shudder before being ripped to ribbons.

The eye of the storm cut directly over the base, which sits on a narrow spit of land that juts into the Gulf of Mexico, about a dozen miles south of Panama City. Trees bent in the howling wind, then splintered. Stormproof roofs only a few months old peeled like old paint and were scraped away by the gale. An F-15 fighter jet on display at the base entrance was ripped from its foundation and pitched onto its back amid twisted flagpoles and uprooted trees.

When it was over, the base lay in ruins, amid what the Air Force called “widespread catastrophic damage.” There were no reported injuries, in part because nearly all personnel had been ordered to leave before the Category 4 hurricane’s landfall. Commanders still sifting through mounds of wreckage Thursday could not say when evacuation orders would be lifted.

As the monster storm barreled toward the Florida coast this week, the Air Force worked to minimize possible destruction. Tyndall is home to the largest group of F-22 stealth fighters — 55 of them, each costing a dizzying $339 million. The stealth fighters and about 17 trainer jets were flown to safety, to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Planes from nearby Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base also fled inland in the days before the storm.

The Air Force’s strategy to sidestep risk was starkly different from the Marine Corps’ decision last month to face off against Hurricane Florence and not evacuate Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. At the time, Camp Lejeune’s commander, Brig. Gen. Julian Alford, said he had the supplies and equipment to brave the storm, noting, “finally, we have Marines who will be ready to assist and take care of each other.”

But the Air Force’s mission is centered on delicate and astronomically expensive aircraft, and a culture that thinks little of traveling several hundred miles in an afternoon. So when storms threaten, the force tends to fly rather than fight.

“Wing commanders make the call,” said Maj. Malinda Singleton, an Air Force spokeswoman. “If there is a potential threat they are prepared to minimize damage.”

Only a few planes secured in hangars and a small “ride out element” of airmen stayed behind during Hurricane Michael.

Its aftermath was both devastating and remarkable, with helicopter footage of the base Thursday morning showing hangars that had easily survived past storms now riddled with gaping holes. At least three twin-engine propeller planes owned by a contractor and used for training were buried in debris from the wreckage of the largest hangar, which also housed at least five QF-16 jets — retired fighters that have been stripped down and turned into drones and used as target practice. Those, too, were entombed beneath what was left of the building.

In a Facebook post late Thursday, base leaders said many of the buildings were “a complete loss.” The marina, its structures and docks were also destroyed. Power lines and trees blocked nearly every road, and utilities and electricity had not been turned back on.

The destruction of an Air Force base can only be matched in scope by the pounding that Hurricane Andrew gave Homestead Air Force Base, just south of Miami, in 1992. That Category 5 storm, with winds estimated at 150 mph, smashed hangars and left battered fighter jets and mammoth cargo planes in pieces on the runway. Nearly all the surviving planes and personnel were reassigned to other bases. Two years later, it reopened as a smaller, Air Force Reserve base.

The Air Force was unable to say Thursday when Tyndall might resume operations. Other Air Force and Navy bases in the area, which were spared the brunt of the storm, reopened in a limited capacity Thursday.

Tyndall, where about 3,600 personnel are stationed, sits on 29,000 acres that include undeveloped woods and beaches, as well as stores, restaurants, schools, a bowling alley and quiet, tree-lined streets with hundreds of homes for both active-duty and retired military. Video footage captured the ruin there, too: The high-powered storm skinned roofs, shattered windows, and tossed cars and trailers like toys, transforming the normally pristine base into a trash heap. Multistory barracks buildings stood open to the sky.

The Air Force said Thursday that recovery teams conducted an initial assessment of portions of base housing and found widespread roof damage to nearly every home.

“At this point, Tyndall residents and evacuated personnel should remain at their safe location,” said Col. Brian Laidlaw, 325th Fighter Wing commander. “We are actively developing plans to reunite families and plan to provide safe passage back to base housing.” William Arrowood was among the neighborhood’s newest residents. A civilian, he moved into his father’s home Monday with his wife, children and pets to take care of his father, an Army retiree who had recently had a stroke. Arrowood was still unpacking when he heard the squadrons of fighter jets flying off to safer ground. He thought the storm would miss his new home, and was excited to move into what he described as a paradise.

“It was great. I could throw a rock in the ocean from my house. No crime, people are friendly, great fishing,” he said in a phone interview. “That’s all gone. The storm went straight through my front yard.”

With only a few days in his new house, he had not yet signed up for renter’s insurance. He evacuated and has not returned, but he said he fears he and his family are wiped out.

“We lost pretty much everything,” he said, “and we’re not really sure now what to do.”

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