After hurricane, Tyndall Air Force Base slowly rebuilds with eyes on the future

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The buildings shook as Hurricane Michael took aim on Tyndall Air Force Base last October.

Col. Jeff Hawkins, the vice wing commander of the 325th Fighter Wing, was one of only 93 people left on base when it came in. 

“At the tail end, right before the eye hit, you could hear the roof start to rip up. And we actually had a waterfall in the room we happened to be in.”

Hawkins says, when it was over, it was like stepping back in time. 

"It looked like a scene out of pictures you see from World War II,” he said. “Where places have been carpet-bombed, you’ve got trees downed across the landscape.”

The storm damaged every building on Tyndall – all 484 of them.

To manage the rebuilding process, the Air Force sent in Col. Scott Matthews. He says, at first, he couldn’t comprehend the level of devastation.

“The initial team, months ago, did an initial damage assessment, and we categorized it into three bins – Is it something that could be saved? Should we take it and find some way to preserve it? And then those that were likely destroyed and we need to demolish them,” Matthews explained.

Right now, the work involves detailed engineering assessments. 

“They’re restoring some buildings to pre-storm conditions, which means we’re taking them back and repairing them to the day they were,” he said.

That includes the control tower and some hangars. But some will have to come down. 

“It’s going to cost too much to repair them in how we want to reshape the flight line,” Matthews said.

Hangar 5 on base, a World War II-era structure, suffered significant wind damage during Michael.

Inside some of those hangars sat a number of the Air Force’s stealth fighters, the F-22 Raptors.

“We kept 17 of our 55 that were here, that couldn’t be flown out for maintenance reasons, primarily,” Col. Hawkins said. “All but two are back up and flying. Most of them took cosmetic damage because the hangars they were in had a bunch of debris flying around.”

The Raptors have been moved to three other bases across the country. The Air Force will make a decision in the next year if they will return to Tyndall.

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For all of the damage, the Air Force has pledged $3 billion over the next five years. Tyndall now has the chance to be the first base built – almost from scratch – in the 21st Century.

“It really is the first time in the last 60 to 70 years where we can take almost a clean slate and make this base whatever we want,” Hawkins added.