Five years after Michael: ‘We’ve all been working through some huge hurdles’

  • Published
  • By David Ford
  • AFIMSC Public Affairs

Five years ago, Dan Gerdes and his family went to bed after preparing for what they expected to be a Category 3 hurricane. They woke up to the news that Hurricane Michael was quickly approaching and would be bigger and more dangerous than anyone had predicted.  

“My family and I had previously been through five hurricanes, but this storm was much more intense than anything I have ever seen before,” said Gerdes, who handles metering and energy data for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Energy Directorate. “Nobody expected it to spool up like it did. The wind was so fierce you could not see one inch outside of any of the windows.”

An office at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida after Hurricane Michael

An office at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, was turned inside out on Oct. 10, 2018, by Hurricane Michael. Grass, mud, leaves and tree branches litter the walls and floors after the area was submerged in the 12-foot storm surge. The Category 5 hurricane was the third most intense storm to reach the continental United States and the strongest to hit the Florida Panhandle. (Courtesy Photo)

A home destroyed at Tyndall AFB after Hurricane Michael

A home at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. fell victim to 26 trees falling on the house during Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10, 2018. Some trees were later found to have been over 200 years old. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Dan Gerdes)

On Oct. 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall as a Category 5 storm, transforming Tyndall from an Air Force installation with 693 facilities and nearly 17,000 acres of beautiful, tall pine trees, into a disaster area. The storm ripped roofs off buildings, collapsed infrastructure and left an endless trail of debris and fallen trees causing the base and areas of the Florida Panhandle to be nearly unrecognizable.

Gerdes said during the storm he and his family should have been hunkered down in a safer place, but they were trying to protect their home by mopping up water coming in through the ceiling vents and screwing boards over doors and patios. 

“We could hear trees hitting the house and feel the house shaking as they hit,” he said. “We had 26 trees fall on it, lost half of our shingles, three chimneys and four windows. The house suffered $650,000 worth of damage and I am still working on repairing a lot of it myself.”

Many individuals and families in the affected communities share a similar experience. Michael brought unexpected challenges and even though so much time has passed, some are still trying to put the pieces back together and finish repairing their homes.

“We faced hurdles in our personal lives with insurance, insurance adjustors, contractors, lawyers and inspectors that made us question our mental stability at times,” said Jeremy Gutierrez, division chief of AFCEC’s Civil Engineer Maintenance Inspection and Repair Team. “It cost us all so much, but in the end, we have grown stronger from the experience.”

Despite the catastrophic damage to living conditions, Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center’s team members set aside their own personal devastation to begin the long recovery and rebuild process at Tyndall to keep the Air Force mission going. 

Heavy debris at Tyndall AFB after Hurricane Michael

A golf cart (center) was one of many vehicles that were engulfed and destroyed by metal debris thrown across Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, by Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10, 2018. Hundreds of pieces of equipment were lost, including several 40-foot-long shipping containers that were picked up and moved into the trees as far as a half-mile north from their original location. (Courtesy Photo)

Aerial view of Tyndall AFB after Hurricane Michael

An aerial view of the iconic static aircraft display located near the main gate at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, shows damage caused by Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10, 2018. (Courtesy Photo)

“Even as difficult as it was with our homes having no roofs, walls or kitchens, and people living in RVs, we still managed to work full time doing day-to-day operations,” Gerdes said.

In many areas power, water, internet and phone service were down for up to four weeks, leaving AFCEC members to make do with rudimentary facilities and limited resources.

“I was eating MREs at work and cooking all meals at the house on my gas grill, hoping I didn’t run out of propane,” Gutierrez said. “I could only find one spot, which was outside of town, to get cell phone reception so I could call my family and keep in touch with Tyndall leadership.”

Damage to the base and surrounding areas was so severe some AFCEC members, like Brian Skibba, Airbase Technologies branch chief, had to wait almost two weeks for roads to be cleared of debris and trees, which were bulldozed into large piles on the sides of the roads, before regaining access to their work sites. 

“It felt like a deployment for many of us,” Skibba said. “At the time we called it ‘Camp Tyndall’ because everything was gone, and we had to start from scratch. I remember working out of a trailer with a noisy generator for about five months just trying to make do and get everyone back to normal operations.”

Although it was a challenge, in two months he and his team recovered a lot of equipment, and the research lab was able to start doing experiments again. While the majority of Skibba’s team and many others across Tyndall are still working out of temporary facilities, there is optimism looking forward to what the future holds. 
“Hurricane Michael gave us a chance to start over and really advance things, and it’s going to be a tremendous change for the Air Force,” Skibba said.

Tyndall reconstruction is making it resilient to future natural disasters while incorporating cutting-edge technology to increase efficiency and security to create the Air Force model Installation of the Future. 

Col. Robert Bartlow, AFCEC’s Natural Disaster Recovery Division chief, who lived at Tyndall as a child and was later stationed at the base as an active-duty service member, came back shortly after the storm hit to help with recovery planning. He now leads the rebuild for AFIMSC. 

“It was difficult to envision back in 2018 how this community and how this base was going to recover, but fast forward five years and it’s impressive to see how much progress we’ve made,” Bartlow said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done – but it’s coming along.”