Air Force Can't Start Storm Repair Projects at Tyndall Due to Funding Gap

A soldier stands guard at the damaged entrance to Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla., Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in the aftermath of hurricane Michael. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A soldier stands guard at the damaged entrance to Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla., Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in the aftermath of hurricane Michael. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The U.S. Air Force is unable to begin planned projects to rebuild hurricane-damaged Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, because the service has not received much-needed funding from Congress, according to the service's top civilian.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on Tuesday said the service has been forced to postpone rebuilding efforts and awarding of new contracts, as it tries to repair the $4.7 billion in damage caused by Hurricane Michael when the Category 5 storm hit the base in October, destroying nearly 700 buildings and forcing 11,000 personnel to relocate.

"Homeowners and businesses purchase insurance to protect themselves from these kinds of disasters, but that's not an option for the military," Wilson said in a statement. "When unavoidable catastrophes strike our facilities, supplemental funding is our only recourse. If they don't step in, our communities, our readiness, and our security all pay the price."

Officials in March said they anticipated a stoppage in relief work if Congress didn't grant them the additional funding.

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The Air Force at the time deferred 61 projects in the U.S. and overseas worth a total of $272 million, planning to use that money for base repairs. It also outlined a plan in which it will reallocate other funding by cutting 18,000 flight training hours starting Sept. 1 if Congress doesn't provide the repair funds.

John Henderson, assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy, told reporters Tuesday that Tyndall and Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska -- which was hit by massive floods in March, causing more than $400 million in damage -- are critical capital infrastructure bases the Defense Department and Congress must continue to support.

He said there are 121 new projects at Tyndall -- including cleanup, mold remediation, roof repairs, and demolition of old or damaged buildings -- that the Air Force will be forced to defer into fiscal 2020.

Airmen whose missions are still based at Tyndall were recently moved out of "tent cities" where they were temporarily housed into hardened structures. However, only three of the 11 dorms that sustained damage have been repaired, Henderson said Tuesday, adding that no family housing is livable at this time.

Similar repair projects will stop in June at Offutt, where dozens of buildings sustained water damage from the extensive flooding. Water levels rose to roughly 10 feet in some buildings, officials said at the time.

Wilson earlier this year said the service has already used up $410 million in operations and maintenance funds for Tyndall, "and we expect, by the end of this year, it's going to be about $750 million for recovery" used up from the service's fiscal 2019 budget.

Henderson said an additional $150 million in military construction funding from fiscal 2019 is needed to continue planning and design efforts at Tyndall.

Fully rebuilding Tyndall into a fifth-generation base that could one day host F-35 Joint Strike Fighters will cost "about $2.5 billion in military construction requirements and $900 million in [operations and maintenance] in FY20 and beyond," Henderson said. "Our intent is for it to continue to be a fighter base."

The service in December said it hopes to transform Tyndall -- which has 29,000 acres and training ranges over the water that don't exist elsewhere in the U.S. -- into a permanent F-35 base.

The Air Force has also proposed locating MQ-9 Reaper drone operations at Tyndall. The F-35 and Reaper moves could happen in 2023, Henderson said.

The base will be rebuilt with future natural disasters in mind, including hardened maintenance and hangar facilities and raised buildings to limit flood damage, he said.

"It's an absolutely essential base for us," Henderson said.

At Offutt, "our current projections [show] we'll need about $120 million for maintenance and repair from FY19 and then, at some point, another $300 million in military construction funds to reconstruct facilities that were destroyed," he said during an interview at the Pentagon.

Henderson said maintenance on some aircraft fleets will begin slowing in May, followed by a halt in flying operations.

In March, officials said these maintenance cuts would specifically affect the E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system, or AWACS, according to a news release. The service will also ground five bombers as early as September, the release said.

Stopping work at Tyndall and Offutt until new funding comes through is meant to preserve as much readiness across the force as possible, Henderson said. For example, the Air Force and Navy have been tasked with meeting an 80 percent mission capability (MC) rate in their fighter fleets and are rushing to meet that goal.

"We're trying to preserve that," he said, referring to the 80 percent MC rate. "This is the start of the waterfall of the things we have to do but, at some point, without supplemental funding, if we continue at this spend rate, I could see where we would have readiness impacts also."

The Air Force expects the repair delays to impact its new infrastructure strategy at some point, Henderson said.

The service earlier this year unveiled a plan to update bases with eroded infrastructure and those that haven't received modernization improvements in the last 20 years. Dubbed the Air Force Infrastructure Investment Strategy, or "I2S," the effort is set to be funded starting next fiscal year, if the 2020 budget request is approved by Congress.

By deferring upgrades to other bases to repair Offutt and Tyndall, the price of future improvements across the force "goes up," Henderson said.

"It would certainly impact the ability to get a good start on that," he added.

Wilson on Tuesday said the service has been robbed of funding even on "minimal recovery efforts because Congress hasn't yet moved forward with recovery funding."

The domino effect "is impacting all of our bases," she said. "We'll continue to face natural disasters, but we can't set the precedent of not rebuilding our bases following a storm like Hurricane Michael. A natural disaster shouldn't decide whether our communities keep their bases."

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

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