Homestead ARB and Hurricane Andrew: A look back, a look forward

  • Published
  • By Ross Tweten
  • 482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs

On Aug. 24, 1992, Homestead Air Force Base was forever altered.

Like much of the surrounding communities, Homestead AFB received the full fury of a category 5 hurricane named Andrew, leaving it in complete ruin.

But 20 years later, Homestead Air Reserve Base continues to look to the future, growing and developing faster than the wind speeds that once stripped it bare.

By the time base personnel and aircraft had been evacuated to a safe haven, Hurricane Andrew had grown to a category five storm. A small cadre of mission essential commanders and support personnel weathered the storm in the alert facility on base.

Once the storm passed and tumult subsided, one of the largest clean up and salvage operations in the peacetime history of the military ensued. A reconstitution team, who weathered the storm at an off-base location, returned to base and started initial clean up and security taskings.

Military, civilian and dependent personnel needed to be accounted for. Notices in the local media outlets let evacuated personnel know who to call and where to check in to the base. On Friday, Aug. 28 1992, Homestead Air Force Base opened for official business only.

For the individuals laying eyes on the base for the first time since the storm, reconciling what they were seeing seemed impossible.

"Those things that have been a part of your life for so long, I guess you take for granted that they're always going to be there," said Mr. Tom Miller, currently with the 482nd Maintenance Squadron and during Hurricane Andrew was the electrical shop chief with the 482nd Maintenance Squadron as an Air Reserve Technician. Mr. Miller was living in Cutler Bay at the time of the hurricane and weathered the storm in St. Petersburg. He's been a member of the base since 1968.

"The most vivid memories I have are when I first went back to where I lived and when I first went back to the base because that was where I lived and worked," he said. "Those are the things that you get some strength from, and then to come back and see that area was completely devastated, that really hits you. The devastation seemed insurmountable."

Some members of the base were deployed to Aviano Air Base, Italy, while the storm ravaged the base. When they returned the next day, they were flung into the storm's wake completely unaware of the status of family members and the base.

"We were watching the hurricane live on television from Italy," said Chief Master Sgt. Katdo Robinson, 482nd Maintenance Squadron structural repairs shop superintendent. At the time of the storm, Robinson was a staff sergeant in the same shop of which he is now the superintendent.

"People were panicking because we couldn't talk to our families because of the power outages," he said. "A lot of people hadn't talked to their family until they got off that airplane coming back from Italy. It was probably the longest overseas flight back to the states I'd ever been on. "

As individuals trickled on base and back to work, the prospect of the future of Homestead Air Force Base was very much on the forefront over everyone's mind.

"My first thought was my career as an Air Reserve Technician is over here," said Robinson. "I thought there was no way that Homestead was going to be rebuilt. We were all under the impression that our lives as reservists here would be no more."

The 482nd had to temporarily relocate their F-16A and B model aircraft to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, which housed the aircraft and essential personnel until April 1993. Any reservists not deployed were busy rebuilding their homes and settling claims with their insurance companies. Then in April 1993, the 482nd relocated to MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., for one year.

Many Airmen were dedicated to the mission of Homestead Air Force Base and found themselves in a position to be the tip of the spear in keeping the mission alive and well. As shadows of doubt loomed initially over Homestead, Airmen fought back uncertainty and doubt with dogged determination.

"One of the most difficult things that I dealt with was initially leaving my family to follow the unit," said Robinson. "I wanted to be part of a process that made sure that we established a future for our family. But there was a feeling of guilt along with that as well. Here I am, going to sleep in a dorm with air conditioning and hot shower, but my family is back in Homestead dealing with the mosquitoes, humidity, and recovery. Ultimately, you knew that you were doing something important, making money, taking care of the family."

"But there's a lot of individuals like myself that made that voyage and actually stayed here with the unit, deployed to Wright-Patterson, went to MacDill, and stayed with the unit. Making that sacrifice to go with the unit to keep the flying mission going, it makes me feel good, " Robinson said.

All the while, Homestead AFB was on the Base Closure and Realignment Commission's initial base closings list. Regional closure hearings were held in Orlando, Fla., in May 1993. When the listing was finalized and sent to President Clinton, Homestead AFB was no longer slated for complete closure. In March of 1994, the wing returned to Homestead. 

As Airmen and civilians began rebuilding what was now to be known as Homestead Air Reserve Base, they also helped their neighbors.

Although the air traffic control tower was destroyed by the hurricane, a mobile control tower was set up and the base began receiving relief supplies for both the base and the surrounding communities. Members of the 482nd also helped the community by distributing food and supplies.

"People definitely had each others' backs out there," said Miller. "There was a lot of compassion. I witnessed a lot of people rallying together and helping each other out."

According to Robinson, given the austere state of the base during the rebuilding, as the recovery progressed, hope and resolve followed.

"Initially, it wasn't a lot of fun," he said. "But one of the great things was seeing it, the way it was, and watching each building pop back up, everything spring back up. It was a beautiful thing."

Those who were members of the Air Force found themselves in a very beneficial position as given the conditions, they found their needs were met and they could always rely on the helping hands of their fellow servicemembers. Despite the formal and substantial preparedness plans of today, in 1992, their plans weren't as substantial and formulated to meticulous detail as they are today. Still, members of the base felt as though the Air Force never dropped the ball in taking care of its own.

"They took care of business," said Miller. "They were very good about being flexible with us, weighing everyone's extenuating circumstances."

According to Robinson, there was never I time he felt he didn't have his Air Force family around him.

"We were networking, carpooling, taking care of each other's children," he said. "It was nice. We took care of each other. All I can say is I'm glad I was in the Air Force at the time. It was amazing how people came together."

Homestead ARB is nipping at the heels of its active duty bygone status in terms of impact on the community. The base now employs more than 3,000 people. In the last fiscal year, the base's economic impact on the community exceeded $260 million.

Homestead ARB continues to be a substantial part of modern wars and humanitarian missions, supporting Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, Unified Response (the Hatian earthquake relief), and New Dawn. The base is also home to an air show which draws more than 400,000 people and $5 million.

The base also serves as a host to several tenant units. Customs and Border Protection, Coast Guard, Florida Air National Guard, and Special Operations Command South all have a contingent of personnel operating on base.

"Not only did Homestead survive, but it came back with a head of steam," said Robinson. "Knowing the history of where we started and where we are right now, it's a good feeling."

Preparing for hurricanes and tropical storms is an efficient and thorough process and high levels of readiness are constantly maintained. Aircraft are evacuated each time a hurricane approaches early enough to allow Airmen to head home and take care of their families. The base can also serve as a hub of community support in the aftermath of hurricanes, able to support local, state and federal agencies during post-hurricane relief and recovery efforts. Ultimately, hurricane preparedness continues to evolve to better serve the base and its personnel.

"With increases in technology, more sophisticated forecasting software, and advances in communications systems and social media, we're at a huge advantage since Andrew," said Mr. Jason Sundin, 482nd Mission Support Group Emergency Management flight chief. "Our preparedness is only getting better, but people still need to remain vigilant. We have definitely taken huge strides. Our preparedness plans are a living document, and we continue to revise our plans and evolve for improvement."

According to Robinson, with recall rosters, notifications, contingency meetings, and briefings, the base covers all its bases in terms of preparedness.

"We know where everyone's at and where everyone's going," he said. "On base, we take hurricane preparedness seriously. "

The base was filled with people focusing on rebuilding. This philosophy carries on today.

"Most people here have the right mindset of going forward," said Robinson. "It's important to remember where we've been because it puts in perspective what we're capable of and where we can take our mission to. There were pioneers here back then that fought the fight to keep the base here and there are still pioneers here that continue to fight the fight so Homestead can continue to flourish."

The base continues to grow, and as a gateway to the southern hemisphere, Homestead Air Reserve Base is a premiere strategic location. New buildings continue to be erected on base. From a new dining facility, fitness center, Special Operations Command South headquarters, and a myriad of other structures being built, the mission and capabilities of Homestead Air Reserve base continues to become more dynamic and diverse. The base stands not as ground zero for Hurricane Andrew, but as a base ready to deploy its jets and play a role in humanitarian service across the globe.

For those who've seen both the before and after of the storm, 20 years means different things to different people.

"Sometimes it feels like it was 200 years ago and then other times it feels like it was last week," said Miller. "When I came back on base after the storm, a place where I had worked for 20 years, I just thought, 'what's the answer for this?'; 'where do we even start?' We learned a big lesson: these things can change people's lives overnight. The base has come back, and I'm glad it did."