What happens when a natural disaster strikes a military base? Does the base close for good? Does the government try to salvage what’s left and restart military operations? Much depends on the nature of the damage, the extent of it, and whether or not the base was scheduled to close at some point anyway.
In 2018, Hurricane Michael devastated portions of Florida. Tyndall Air Force Base, 12 miles away from Panama City, Florida, suffered damage. More than 11,000 troops and their family members were evacuated ahead of the storm.
Equipment and aircraft were evacuated too, but not all. Some of the Tyndall AFB F-22 Raptor fleet had to remain behind due to maintenance and/or safety issues. One report in Stars and Stripes quotes an Air Force general saying that “100% of the housing” for Tyndall was rendered uninhabitable. The base was, at the time of this writing, closed for business indefinitely.
Should Tyndall Air Force Base Remain Closed?
This is a question on the minds of many. The answer is that much depends on a set of variables that could cause military leaders to decide to cut their losses and keep a base closed. Alternatively, they could force the government to repair and rebuild the base due to strategic necessity.
Tyndall Air Force Base took a “direct hit” during Hurricane Michael. There was early speculation that the base might need to be closed permanently. There aren’t any real precedents for making such decisions as these issues are normally worked on a case-by-case basis.
The closest thing we have to what could happen at Tyndall AFB over time is the examples left by other military bases that were closed or realigned in the wake of a natural disaster.
The Story of Clark Air Base and Naval Base Subic Bay
Two American military concerns located in the Philippines, Clark Air Base and Naval Base Subic Bay, were damaged by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. It was a major problem for the military even if only viewed in terms of the evacuation. The effort required more than 15,000 troops and dependents had to be transferred to Subic Bay. This is roughly 20 miles away from the eruption.
About 100 of the Clark Air Base structures collapsed as a result of the disaster. Many more base facilities were severely damaged. It makes sense from one perspective that the Department of Defense would be interested in closing the damaged installation. But lava, smoke, and ash from the volcano were actually NOT the reason that Clark Air Base and Naval Station Subic Bay ultimately shut down.
The Real Reason Clark Air Base and Naval Station Subic Bay Closed After A Natural Disaster
There had been ongoing disputes between the Department of Defense and the government of the Philippines about payment issues. The short version is that the U.S. government wanted cheaper rent and a longer lease. The Philippine government wanted more money and a shorter lease. The American attitude at the time seemed to be, “Try all you want to get your terms, we aren’t budging.”
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo effectively played into the hands of the American negotiators. They chose to close up shop in the end and pull out of the Philippines. The rent battle had been ongoing prior to the disaster. Mount Pinatubo seems to have sealed the fate of both Clark and Subic Bay.
Clark AB closed first in 1991. Naval Station Subic Bay closed in 1992 after President Corazon Aquino who initially wanted to delay the departure for economic reasons issued a formal request. He asked that the U.S. military presence to end in that country by the end of 1992 at least where Clark and Subic Bay were concerned.
Homestead Air Force Base Florida and Hurricane Andrew
Homestead Air Force Base in Florida was severely damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The Category 5 storm forced the evacuation of F-16 fighter jets, Air Force Reserve HC-130s, and HH-60s.
Evacuated missions carried on in alternate locations. The evacuees would not return to Homestead to perform mission tasks until 1994.
Homestead was on the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) list of bases under review. Many assumed that Hurricane Andrew would be the final nail in the coffin for the Florida Air Force Base.
It’s true that the active duty mission at Homestead was for all intents and purposes finished. The base had been realigned by converting Homestead from an active base to an Air Reserve base. The 482d Fighter Wing (with a fleet of F-16s) plus an alert detachment of F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft from the Florida Air National Guard 125th Fighter Wing began missions there in 1994. Active duty missions would eventually return to Homestead, though it remains categorized as an Air Reserve Base.
Homestead was on the BRAC chopping block until it was removed in 1995 from the list of bases to be closed or realigned. The base did not close thanks in part to intervention by local community members, elected officials, and lobbying groups. Could Hurricane Andrew have damaged the base enough to give the military pause about reopening it?
Whatever the answer to that question, it is clear that the natural disaster alone was not enough to influence the ultimate decision.
What Happens to Tyndall Air Force Base?
The fate of any base affected by a natural disaster involves far more than just assessing the damage, counting the costs to repair, and deciding on that basis. One very important factor in choosing to close a military base, especially one located in the United States of America, is whether or not the base could be declared an EPA Superfund site.
Superfund sites are defined by some as, “any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment. These sites are placed on the National Priorities List (NPL).”
Air bases closed or realigned under BRAC have frequently required environmental cleanup programs to make the area suitable for repurposing. The expense of a Superfund cleanup operation is likely a concern when deciding whether or not to close a military base.
Another Factor: Location, Location, Location
Tyndall Air Force Base is in a strategic location to conduct training missions, launch real-world operations, etc. The value of the location alone could force officials to reconsider closing a military base even if the financial data and other justification argues in favor of a closure or realignment.
What Elected Officials Say about Rebuilding
As far as Tyndall itself, more than one elected official supported a rebuild at the Florida base. In the wake of the storm, there were no indications that DoD officials wanted to shift the mission to nearby bases that could support air operations similar to the ones flown out of the Florida base.
Each of the motivations for closing or realigning the bases mentioned above were situational. In the case of Tyndall AFB, the base’s location, contributions to the local economy, and the potential for a serious need to address environmental issues created by flight operations (solvents, fuel, degreasers, lubricants, and other potential contaminants to the water table there) all create another layer of concern when discussing the base’s future.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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