About 11,000 airmen and their families evacuated and cannot return.
The 93 airmen who rode out Hurricane Michael at Tyndall Air Force Base came away unharmed, according to U.S. Air Force leadership, who commended them for their service in the face of an unprecedented natural disaster.
Standing amid the ruins of the hurricane-ravaged base on Sunday, where some of the U.S. military's most advanced weaponry is housed, Heather Wilson, secretary of the United States Air Force, declared all missions have been "stood down" and resources were being allocated to rebuild the airfield, which is home to the 325th Fighter Wing and a squadron of F-22 stealth fighters.
A special operations team re-opened the airfield's runway immediately after the storm.
"I want to reinforce the point that our ability as an Air Force to defend the nation and to do our job has not been impacted by this storm," said Gen. Dave Goldfein, the chief of staff of the Air Force. "Now we are focused on the airmen, their families, to making sure we get operations back up and running."
The evacuation of 11,000 airmen and their families, and all airworthy aircraft, occurred over 48 hours, from when Michael became a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane at landfall midday Wednesday.
In that time, Tyndall Commander Col. Brian Laidlow had to marshal his forces and get his leadership in place to move personnel and equipment out of harm's way.
"When he gave the order they knew how to execute," Goldfein touted. "Their execution was excellent."
But those airmen no longer can return to the base because it is unsafe. Civilian workers have been placed on administrative leave with pay and benefits.
Goldfein said the "good news" is the Air Force has survived major storm damage before — Hurricane Hugo at Shaw Air Force Base in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew at Homestead Air Force Base in 1992.
Homestead was destroyed, and rebuilt.
"The base is coming back," Goldfein said of Tyndall.
Morale was high among the airmen who rode out the storm, according to Wilson, who said they were asked if there was something they needed to make their stay more comfortable.
"Here are airmen who have been here riding out the storm, many haven’t had a hot shower since before the storm hit," Wilson said. "Not a single one of them could think of anything they needed. That’s America's Air Force. I’m proud to be serving alongside of them."
Wilson, Goldfein, and Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright inspected the base Sunday afternoon. They were able to visually inspect the aircraft and equipment left behind, but would not say whether they were damaged.
Goldfein said the "highly-sophisticated" planes needed to be powered up to determine whether they were damaged.
Almost all of the structures on the base had roof damage, according to Wright, who said civil engineers would be brought in to take a look at the facilities.
"We’ve got civil engineering operations here now," Wright said. "We’ve got command and control back up now. We have security in here from Moody Air Force Base. The wing commander asked for additional support from outside, extra maintenance; he'll get what he needs to get things going again."