Pence: 'Tyndall will be rebuilt' after Hurricane Michael
By ERYN DION | The News Herald, Panama City, Fla. | Published: October 25, 2018
TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE (Tribune News Service) — Standing amid buildings without roofs, trees snapped like matchsticks and a model F-15 sitting upside down, Vice President Mike Pence brought a message to Tyndall Air Force Base Thursday — that the federal government still supports their mission and is committed to rebuilding the base.
"We will rebuild Tyndall Air Force Base," Pence told a group of Florida National Guard and Coast Guard personnel.
Fifteen days after the eye of Hurricane Michael passed over the base, Col. Brian Laidlaw said Tyndall personnel and airmen from other nearby bases have made it through 503 buildings — about half the total number on base — and what they've seen so far has been encouraging. No more than 30 percent of those buildings are a total loss and many critical areas did not receive as much damage as originally thought.
"Today we have come so much further than I could have ever imagined when I came out of that ride out shelter that night," Laidlaw said.
While the base is still seriously compromised and the air strip inoperable, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the "schoolhouse" — where F-22 pilots from across the country are trained with flight simulators — should be up and running by the first of the year, with the aircraft flying out of Eglin Air Force Base.
More than 11,000 personnel were evacuated from Tyndall in the 22 hours before the storm, along with all of the aircraft that were safe to fly, officials said. By the end of the week, the remaining aircraft will be evacuated as crews — both natively from Tyndall and other bases across the country — return to the base to help rebuild. The federal government has already committed $100 million to both help the base recover and help the thousands of military families that have been displaced in the storm's aftermath.
During his visit, Pence received a briefing on the damage and recovery efforts on base, along with the needs Tyndall will have moving forward if they are to rebuild. Pence, who toured the area about a week ago with President Donald Trump, said he was impressed and inspired by the progress being made.
"This is a vitally important base," he said. "And you have proved your meddle once again."
About 20,000 families locally depend on Tyndall Air Force Base and Gov. Rick Scott, as well as Laidlaw, said they are keeping those military families first and foremost in their thoughts.
"Our airmen and their families are our top priority," said Laidlaw.
Because so many families have a personal connection to the base, the destruction left by Hurricane Michael has been particularly hard to swallow. Rochelle Killan, who works with Hiland Park Baptist Church said her husband, who was stationed at Tyndall years ago and who works there now, has been "devastated" by the damage. The vice president's visit, she said, gave her hope that people in Panama City and Tyndall Air Force Base aren't forgotten, and a challenge coin given to her husband by Karen Pence and signed by the vice president will "mean the world" to her husband as he focuses on rebuilding the base.
"Bay County has always stood strong," she said. "We're coming together in times like this because we've always come together."
After the briefing at Tyndall, Pence, along with second lady Karen Pence, Wilson, Kellyanne Conway, and others from Washington, toured Hiland Park Baptist Church, where they surveyed the sanctuary — once a focal point for activity in the community that now sits gutted and eerily empty, lit only by a pair of industrial rented lights. The contingency visited volunteers from the Southern Baptist Convention and also met with members of the Florida National Guard, Coast Guard and military families, where the message of rebuilding Tyndall was met with thunderous applause.
After visiting the area, Pence traveled to Jacksonville to stump for Ron DeSantis in his bid for governor. On his visit, and announcement about Tyndall, Rep. Neal Dunn said he had his suspicions that the base would be rebuilt, but hearing it in person was a relief.
"The fact that Vice President Pence came down in person to say that makes me the happiest member of Congress in the country today," Dunn said.