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A year after Hurricane Michael, Panama City Navy base is still recovering

By ED OFFLEY | The News Herald, Panama City, Fla. | Published: October 7, 2019

NAVAL SUPPORT ACTIVITY-PANAMA CITY, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Like the rest of Bay County, this 657-acre engineering station is still recovering from Hurricane Michael's hammer blow a year ago.

Home to a half-dozen Navy and Coast Guard tenant units, the base was close enough to the storm's path that all but a handful of its 150-plus buildings sustained major damage from the high winds and torrential rain. Yet the base was largely spared the total devastation that Michael brought to eastern Bay County and Tyndall Air Force Base, said Lt. Cmdr. Ben O'Neill, the installation's executive officer.

With sustained winds measured at between 120-125 miles per hour near the base, Hurricane Michael inflicted moderate to severe damage on all but a handful of the buildings and structures there, but none were totally destroyed, said Lt. Cmdr. Chris McDowell, the installation's public works officer.

"Four buildings on base were greater than 70% damaged," McDowell said. "But even they are still repairable."

Base officials said that while the installation and its tenant units have largely resumed normal operations, completing the repairs will still take another two or three years.

"We are rebuilding to what we had" before the storm," O'Neill said. "We are meeting the missions of the Navy at this time."

The hurricane inflicted about $180 million in damage to the base; in the first eleven months afterward, the Navy has funded $58 million, with the rest of the money anticipated over the course of the next three years.

"This will be a multi-year repair effort," said Edwin A. Stewart, technical director of Naval Surface Warfare Center – Panama City Division. "We're working through the rebuilding process now." NSWC properties sustained $110 million of the total $180 million in damages.

One of eight warfare centers run by the Naval Sea Systems Command, the Panama City division is the largest tenant unit on the installation with 70% of its land space and 88 buildings, structures and laboratories – of which 82 suffered some form of damage, Stewart said. As part of the Naval Sea Systems Command, the warfare center operates as a Navy Capital Organization, whose annual budget derives from anticipated income from its customers within the service for the projects it performs. Thus, the recovery funds for the warfare center will be reprogrammed out of the centers' overall budget, he said.

NSWC Panama City is responsible for research and development into a number of critical maritime warfighting areas, including littoral warfare, mine warfare and countermeasures, robotic technology, the amphibious Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) technology and the Navy Seal Delivery Vehicle program. At the time Hurricane Michael struck, the warfare division employed 1,500 people, including 1,100 scientists and engineers. Its current annual budget is more than $550 million.

Other tenants on the base include the Navy Diving and Salvage Training Center, the Navy Experimental Diving Unit, Coast Guard Station Panama City and several smaller detachments. O'Neill said the diving school has resumed its cycle of classes and the Experimental Diving Unit is working on a number of ongoing research projects.

While the Coast Guard Station—Panama City experienced heavy losses to a number of work buildings and structures, the disaster relief supplemental appropriation passed by Congress in June has fully funded the estimated $46.7 million it will take to restore the station to its pre-storm condition. While the base officials said they were generally prepared for a major hurricane, the one unanticipated issue was the impact of the storm on its 2,800-person workforce.

"No play in the playbook counted on the workforce having to deal with prolonged personal problems," particularly storm-damaged homes, O'Neill said.

Stewart agreed. The biggest challenge in the past year has been keeping people on track with their current work programs while carrying out a complex schedule of reconstructing vital facilities damaged or destroyed by the storm, he said.

Stewart said his biggest unfinished work is finding new office and lab space for 400 of the warfare center's people who remain displaced, including 200 who are still conducting "telework" from their home computers. Stewart cited several of his staff, who having lost their homes to storm damage, were forced to find temporary housing two hours away from the base.

"They came to work every day," he said. "You've got this positive attitude where they still believe in the mission of the command. The storm exposed the extraordinary people who work for this command. It makes me proud to be a part of this community."

O'Neill said that throughout the past year, he and his colleagues have been constantly reassured by the Navy leadership that rebuilding the base is a top priority for the service.

"We're continuing to work hard and are committed to rebuilding ... and continuing the mission for the long term," O'Neill said.

©2019 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)
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