Hurricane-Broken Air Power Base Has an Alternative to Rebuild for Resilience

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Experts see the recovery effort as a test case for how the U.S. military prepares for climate change

Hurricane-Damaged Air Force Base Has an Opportunity to Rebuild for Resilience

Rebuilding the hurricane-wrecked Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida will come with a massive price tag, but experts say it offers a chance to make the base more resilient to the effects of extreme weather.

Videos and photos taken after Hurricane Michael hit Tyndall as a Category 4 storm last month showed hangars with torn roofs and downed trees. Tyndall soon reported it had suffered “widespread catastrophic damage.” Personnel evacuated ahead of the storm, as did some of the pricey F-22 Raptor aircraft housed there.

Vice President Mike Pence has said the base will be rebuilt.

Florida politicians have also supported rebuilding. In a letter to President Trump on Oct. 15, Florida Sens. Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D) and Rep. Neal Dunn (R) called the base “one of America’s most critical installations.”

Tyndall had a local economic impact of just over $596 million in fiscal 2017, according to a report by the base.

Replacing the 29,000-acre base’s entire infrastructure would cost an estimated $1.7 billion, according to a Department of Defense report.

The damage at Tyndall raises questions about the military’s vulnerability, especially at coastal installations, to climate change as it fuels more extreme storms.

“They need to make sure what they rebuild is more resilient than the infrastructure they had before. They need to be prepared for future extreme weather,” said John Conger, director of the Center for Climate & Security. “It’s no longer reasonable to expect 500-year storms to only come once every 500 years.”

‘Not only stronger but smarter’

Rebuilding also provides an opportunity to add renewable energy such as solar or wind power, and microgrids that can withstand storms, said Shana Udvardy, a climate resilience analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“This is going to be a really interesting and important case study for not only the Department of Defense, but for the American government as a whole, to see how we can actually rebuild not only stronger but smarter,” Udvardy said.

Talks are in progress with base leadership over such changes as backup power generation and building hangars with concrete, said Dave Robau, executive director of the nonprofit Gulf Coast Energy Network and a former environmental scientist with the Air Force.

“We know the way that we’ve been building is not going to be the benchmark,” he said.

The latest National Defense Authorization Act, which President Trump signed in August, takes steps toward energy and climate resilience. Proposed projects must disclose whether they are located in a 100-year floodplain. If a new project is within that floodplain, it needs to have a risk mitigation plan and buildings must be located at least 2 feet above the base flood elevation. Mission-critical buildings must be at least 3 feet above that level.

The legislation also requires “changing environmental condition projections” to be incorporated into military construction plans and calls for installations’ master plans to include energy and climate resilience efforts.

Tyndall can “go above and beyond what the NDAA is already requiring installations to do when they think about new projects,” Udvardy said. “They can really be that case study of how to do this well—how do we actually adapt to storms, and more intense and frequent rainfall.”

Asked whether the base would consider the prospect of stronger storms when rebuilding, a Tyndall spokeswoman said last week that “details for the future of various operations at Tyndall are in work.”

“We do know that regardless of the plans, this will be a long-term recovery effort, and assessments are still ongoing,” Capt. Margaret Kealy-Machella said.

Rebuilding

Tyndall said in a news release Oct. 28 that the base “has been actively strategizing a way forward” and that 1,200 people had been brought in to help.

More than 300 of the roughly 700 buildings on the base, excluding housing, have been inspected, and “at least 37 percent are fixable,” according to the release.

Speaking along with Pence, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said last month that the Air Force has already committed $100 million to recovery efforts at Tyndall.

She said the 800-person air operations center that had been transferred to a different location hours before the hurricane struck would be moved back to Tyndall and would be “back to initial operating capability” by Jan. 1.

She also promised that the “schoolhouse” used to train the nation’s F-22 pilots would be reopened.

“The simulators here were not very badly damaged, and we think we can get those back up and operational, and be training pilots here,” she said.

And the expensive and notoriously finicky F-22s that had been housed at Tyndall will be staged out of nearby Eglin Air Force Base.

“We can’t fly aircraft out of Tyndall at the moment. But by Thanksgiving, we will have F-22s in the skies over the Panhandle,” Wilson said.

It’s unclear how many of the aircraft, if any, sustained damage.

Before the storm, the base had more than 50 expensive F-22 aircraft. Some rode out the storm on base. Each of the base’s six hangars was built to the standards in place at the time, Kealy-Machella said.

Beyond Tyndall

Extreme weather has also taken aim at other major military installations this year and last. In September, Hurricane Florence and its deluge of rain aimed directly at North Carolina’s sprawling Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. The storm was blamed for an 84,000-gallon sewage spill at the base, according to the Marine Corps Times. And in Norfolk, Va., ships sailed out to sea from the world’s largest naval station to avoid the storm.

DOD estimated that recovering from three 2017 hurricanes—Harvey, Irma and Maria—would cost it $1.2 billion. The damage was spread across Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

And a Pentagon report made public in January by the Center for Climate & Security found that about half of the more than 3,500 military installations surveyed around the world had already been affected by climate-related events such as drought, storm surge flooding and wind (Greenwire, Jan. 30).

Udvardy worked on a 2016 analysis of how sea-level rise would affect 18 military installations on the East Coast and along the Gulf of Mexico.

“We found that the military is truly on the front lines of sea-level rise, given its heavy presence on the coast, its interconnectedness with the surrounding communities, and of course its important role in maintaining our national security,” she said. “Many military installations are at risk of permanently losing land to the ocean in decades to come.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.

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