Helicopter crew assesses damage at Panama City beach after Hurricane Michael
In October 2018, Hurricane Michael inflicted $4.7 billion of damage on Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. It forced the service to evacuate 11,000 personnel and 46 aircraft. In March 2019, a historic flood inundated Offutt Air Force base in Nebraska. It submerged dozens of buildings and much of the flight line under eight feet of water.
While homeowners and businesses purchase insurance to protect themselves from these kinds of disasters, that’s not an option for the military. When unavoidable catastrophes strike our facilities, supplemental funding from Congress is our only recourse. If they don’t step in, our communities, our readiness and our security all pay the price.
Natural disasters are a fact of life nearly everywhere. A recent congressionally mandated Department of Defense report identified “at risk” bases from Alaska to Texas and from California to Virginia. It’s next to impossible to predict exactly where the next fire, flood or tornado will leave destruction in its wake.
Just like homeowners in Tornado Alley, or high-rises along the San Andreas Fault, we’re taking prudent measures to be ready for the next strike. In fact, after the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael, Air Force Chief of Staff David L. Goldfein and I ordered a 60-day in-depth review of our base resiliency and our preparedness to respond to natural disasters. We’re in the process of implementing changes based on that review.
But history tells us that we cannot be prepared for everything. The unexpected will happen. In April 1991, a rare F5 tornado hit McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, destroying the base school, hospital and housing. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast with unprecedented force. Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi was in the path of destruction. And in September 2016, a downed power line caused the Canyon Fire, burning more than 12,000 acres on Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, California.
In each of these cases, Congress stepped forward to ensure the Air Force could recover. Hours after the 1991 Kansas tornado struck, Sen. Bob Dole was on the phone to President George H.W. Bush, securing funds to help rebuild McConnell. After Katrina, Congress appropriated $815 million to rebuild Keesler and ensure it could continue to train 20,000 airmen each year.
Despite the long historical record of insuring our military facilities and protecting our military communities, Congress has not appropriated any money to date to aid in the recovery of the Tyndall or Offutt bases. Tyndall represents nearly 10 percent of the local economy, and directly and indirectly supports thousands of jobs. Vice President Mike Pence promised, “We will rebuild Tyndall Air Force Base.” But if Congress does not provide funding to rebuild, the Air Force will be forced to pull money from other communities around the country to cover our losses. Sixty-one facility projects across 18 states totaling $272.4 million will have to be stopped so we can do the minimum to ensure the safety and welfare of our people and equipment at Tyndall and Offutt.
This is a dangerous precedent to set. How many other communities across the country depend on their local bases for economic stability and vitality? If Congress fails to act to support Panama City and Omaha, we cannot count on their support after the next disaster strikes.
The Air Force is working to ensure our bases are as resilient as they can be, but a natural disaster should not decide the fate of a community and its base.
Congress is our insurance policy. We need a supplemental appropriation to recover Tyndall and Offutt so that we can avoid cutting projects across the country to manage our losses.
Heather Wilson is the United States Secretary of the Air Force.