In early October 2018, the Florida Panhandle was notified of Tropical Storm Michael looming over the eastern Gulf of Mexico. At the time, it was expected to grow, but no one predicted that it would directly impact Tyndall Air Force Base as a Category 5 hurricane.
The storm made its appearance in EGOMEX over the Columbus Day weekend, leaving the base sparsely populated as Airmen traveled, completely unaware of the inevitable fate of Tyndall waiting just around the corner.
Maurice Spikes, 325th Civil Engineer Squadron Emergency Management Flight Leader, and Brian Stahl, 325th CES Base Assistant Civil Engineer, were just two of 56 people in the Ride-Out element. This team was made up of airmen and civil service workers from many different career fields who were deemed necessary for the immediate assessment and recovery of Tyndall after the storm hit.
“On Tuesday, October 9, the Wing Commander ordered the Base Recovery Element to evacuate and the ROEs to report to Building 909,” Spikes recalled. “At the time we were told it was only supposed to land in Category 2.”
The group huddled together on the second floor of building 909, where the base’s emergency operations center was located, and prepared for a long, uncomfortable night.
Early that Wednesday morning, the lights came on and the 325th Fighter Wing Commander at the time, then Colonel. Brian Laidlaw, informed the sleepy group of people that a team had been up all night analyzing all the patterns they had of Hurricane Michael.
“The wing commander arrived at 4 a.m. to brief us seven hours before the storm was supposed to hit,” Stahl said. “He said ‘This stuff is going to be Category 4 when it happens’ and that was the biggest trigger for me.”
Building 909 was considered one of the strongest buildings on the base in part due to the steel rebars inside the concrete walls. The decision was made that ROE and EOC staff would remain in place for what would be the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the contiguous United States since 1992.
Over the next 24 hours, the eye of Hurricane Michael would pass directly over Tyndall with peak wind speeds of 162 miles per hour causing catastrophic damage to the facility and local area.
“The walls of the building were literally shaking as the eyewall winds passed through,” Spikes said. “Suddenly there was a huge crash. The radio antenna at the top of the building was damaged causing the roof membrane to detach and within seconds water began pouring into the building. Surprisingly, no one panicked.
Everyone assigned to the RE knew exactly what to do and where to go. The crew unplugged every computer, monitor, and television. Radios and satellite phones were bagged in an attempt to protect assets from water damage. For the rest of the night, the 56 people stood side by side in the little space available on the first floor of building 909, eager to see what awaited them on the other side of the walls.
When the storm ended, Michael was responsible for an estimated $25.1 billion in damage and at least 74 deaths across Florida.
On March 2, 2022, demolition of Building 909 began with Spikes and Stahl standing on the outskirts of the construction area.
“It’s bittersweet,” Spikes said. “I was nervous. I don’t know why because it’s just a building, but at the same time, this building saved our lives.
During the demolition, the pair reached out to colleagues who were in the building with them that night. One was Laidlaw, who offered words of comfort: “I know you hate to see him go, but good things are coming.”
The new EOC will be built to withstand winds of over 170 mph and will include specially designed sleeping quarters for teams like ROE and BRE for future emergencies.
The 325th FW came face to face with the fourth most powerful hurricane in modern US history, but remained resilient throughout the devastation and years of rebuilding.
The Tyndall team continues to produce mission-capable Airmen and spearhead innovation. Tearing down the building responsible for saving at least 56 lives is not a painful occasion, but one that reminds the wing and the community of just how far Tyndall has come since that fateful day.
|Date posted:||03.08.2022 17:37|
|Location:||TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Florida, USA|
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