Surviving Hurricane Michael in building 909

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Tiffany Price
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

In early October 2018, the Florida panhandle was notified of Tropical Storm Michael looming over the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. At the time, it was expected to grow, but no one predicted it would make direct landfall over Tyndall Air Force Base as a Category 5 hurricane.

The storm made its appearance in the EGOMEX over Columbus Day weekend, leaving the base minimally manned as Airmen traveled, completely unaware of Tyndall’s inevitable fate waiting just around the corner.

Maurice Spikes, 325th Civil Engineer Squadron emergency management flight chief, and Brian Stahl, 325th CES deputy base civil engineer, were just two of a 56-person Ride-Out Element. This team consisted of Airmen and civil service workers from many different career fields who were deemed necessary to the immediate assessment and recovery of Tyndall after the storm passed.

“On Tuesday, Oct. 9, the wing commander ordered the Base Recovery Element to evacuate and the ROE to report to building 909,” recalled Spikes. “At the time, we were told that it was only supposed to make landfall as a Category 2.”

The group packed themselves into the second floor of building 909, where the base Emergency Operations Center was located, and prepared themselves for a long, uncomfortable night.

Early that Wednesday morning, the lights flickered on and the 325th Fighter Wing commander at the time, then-Col. Brian Laidlaw, informed the drowsy group of people a team had been up all night analyzing every model they had of Hurricane Michael.

“The wing commander came in at 4 a.m. to give us information seven hours before the storm was supposed to hit,” said Stahl. “He said ‘This thing is going to be a Category 4 when it hits,’ and that was the biggest trigger for me.”

Building 909 was considered to be one of the strongest buildings on base due in part to steel rebar inside the concrete walls. The decision was made the ROE and EOC personnel would remain in place for what would be the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the contiguous United States since 1992.

In the next 24 hours, the eye of Hurricane Michael would pass directly over Tyndall with maximum wind speeds of 162 miles per hour, delivering catastrophic damage to the installation and the local area.

“The walls of the building were literally shaking as the eyewall winds passed over,” said Spikes. “Suddenly there was a huge crash. The radio antenna on top of the building was damaged causing the roof’s membrane to detach and within seconds water started to pour into the building. The amazing part about it though was no one panicked.”

Every person assigned to the ROE knew exactly what to do and where to go. The crew unplugged every computer, monitor and TV. Radios and satellite phones were placed in bags in attempt to protect the assets from water damage. For the rest of the night, all 56 people stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the minimal space available on the first floor of building 909, anxious to see what was waiting for them on the other side of the walls.

By the end of the storm, Michael was responsible for approximately $25.1 billion in damages and at least 74 deaths across Florida’s panhandle.

On March 2, 2022, the demolition of building 909 began with both Spikes and Stahl standing on the outskirts of the construction zone.

“It’s bittersweet,” stated Spikes. “I was nervous. I’m not sure why because it’s just a building, but at the same time that building saved our lives.”

During the demolition, both men reached out to fellow coworkers who had been in the building with them that night. One of which was Laidlaw, who offered words of reassurance, “I know you hate to see it go, but good things are coming.”

The new EOC will be built to sustain winds over 170 mph and will include a sleeping quarters specifically designed for teams like the ROE and BRE in preparation for future emergency situations.

The 325th FW came eye-to-eye with the fourth strongest hurricane in modern U.S. history, but remained resilient throughout the devastation and the years of reconstruction.

Team Tyndall continues to produce mission-capable Airmen and spearhead innovation. Demolishing the building responsible for saving at least 56 lives is not a sorrowful occasion, but one that reminds the wing and community how far Tyndall has come since that fateful day.