Tyndall Ends Evacuation Stipends for Some Airmen as Recovery Efforts Continue

The 325th Maintenance Group's building at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, lies in ruins following Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10, 2018. Photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander C. Henninger
The 325th Maintenance Group's building at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, lies in ruins following Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10, 2018. Photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander C. Henninger

Nearly 1,500 U.S. airmen are working to clear debris from flight lines and buildings after Hurricane Michael slammed into Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, last month.

Col. Brian Laidlaw, commander of the 325th Fighter Wing, updated the evacuation order Wednesday, authorizing a minimum evacuation distance of 20 miles from base -- meaning those staying outside the 20-mile radius will receive a per diem stipend, which does cover lodging should they be in paid lodging.

But evacuation entitlements will end for troops who stay within the 20-mile radius, Tyndall officials said in a Facebook post.

Laidlaw said the goal for now is to give troops some sense of routine.

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"As the base moves out of recovery, we look to facilitate a transition to normalcy for some families through enabling you to return to your homes if habitable, a closer commute to facilitate repairs on homes, dependents to return to employment, and children to return to their Bay County schools," he said of the update.

But base housing remains uninhabitable, and it is unknown when families will be able to call Tyndall home again.

Residents were allowed on base to collect personal belongings Oct. 17 to Oct. 21, said Capt. Margaret Kealy-Machella, a Tyndall spokeswoman. Last week, families again returned to move whatever they could from their homes as they relocate to nearby Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Others are staying with loved ones, often much farther afield.

"Many of our airmen and families have evacuated across the country, as far as California and Michigan, to remain in their safe haven as long as the evacuation order is in effect," Kealy-Machella said in an email Wednesday.

She said only those troops who have homes on base will be allowed on the installation, and then only during daylight hours, unless they are working to assist in recovery efforts.

"We have just over 600 Tyndall permanent party members who have returned to take on the job of recovering the base. [But] currently, no airmen are living with their families on base," she said.

Because base housing is privatized, the companies in charge of the development will determine whether a home is livable, Kealy-Machella added.

"We will support our Tyndall members in accessing their homes, but when it comes to the future of individual structures, unfortunately we are unable to provide an answer," she said.

At Eglin, airmen have created a Tyndall Reception Center where service members can access a variety of support functions, including finance, legal assistance, moving expense information and life consultants.

On Saturday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein made his second post-hurricane trip to Tyndall alongside Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright.

"We are now leaning forward, and squadron commanders are looking down their rosters, person by person, trying to figure out what works best for each situation," Laidlaw said during their visit.

Vice President Mike Pence and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson days earlier pledged a full recovery for Tyndall. Wilson said the service has committed $100 million to recovery efforts thus far.

F-22 Raptors that were left behind when the Category 4 storm hit have been moved to Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.

"We have already flown quite a few F-22s to J.B. Langley-Eustis in the last few weeks," Kealy-Machella said. Air Force Magazine reported from Tyndall that a handful of stealth fighters remain in temporary hangars, but said some looked to be in "rough shape."

Neither the number of F-22s damaged nor how many have made it to Langley will be disclosed for operational security reasons, Kealy-Machella said.

But in a letter addressed to Wilson last week, Sen. Marco Rubio confirmed previous reports that up to 17 aircraft may have been left behind. "As Hurricane Michael approached the Florida panhandle, 31 percent of F-22 aircraft at Tyndall Air Force Base were designated non-mission capable (NMC) and were sheltered in place," he wrote.

Fifty-five of the fifth-generation fighters are assigned to the 325th Fighter Wing, he said.

Kealy-Machella said that officials are working to assess and recover other aircraft, such as the QF-16 -- F-16 Fighting Falcons converted into unmanned aircraft -- and T-38 Talon trainers.

-- Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct information about what the stipend covers for those outside a 20-mile radius of Tyndall. It also corrects the spelling of Capt. Margaret Kealy-Machella's name.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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