PANAMA CITY — After a quick drive around Tyndall Air Force Base on Wednesday, President Donald Trump promised to rebuild the hurricane-devastated installation “better than before.”
“They were going to close the base and I said no,” Trump said, standing in front of a destroyed hangar with gaping holes in the ceiling. “We have to rebuild Tyndall, so Tyndall is going to be rebuilt better than before.”
The fear of them, which later was clarified to mean the military, closing Tyndall Air Force Base, where the eye of the Category 5 Michael passed over, was one of the major fears of the area’s residents immediately after the Oct. 10 storm.
The damage was quickly labeled as catastrophic, with almost all of the 700 structures significantly damaged and all 800 units of the base’s housing rendered unlivable. U.S. officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, visited in the weeks after the hurricane and promised it would be rebuilt.
It’s a situation similar to the one the rest of the Bay County is in, where three out of every four buildings were damaged and thousands of residents have been displaced. Leaders also have pledged to build a stronger, more resilient Bay County, even as the growing debris bills dwarf some municipalities’ annual budgets.
With Tyndall representing about a third of the area’s economy, the officials lining up to meet Trump — including Gov. Ron DeSantis, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki and Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey — were hoping for good news.
“You rebuild Tyndall, you rebuild Panama City and Mexico Beach,” Brudnicki said. “If they’re going to rebuild Tyndall, they’re going to have to rebuild Mexico Beach and rebuild Panama City. We support Tyndall. It’s 30% of our economy and 90% of the people who work at Tyndall live in our cities.”
During Trump’s brief appearance, he affirmed the support previously pledged, and pointed to the Air Force’s decision to station three F-35 squadrons there.
While the windshield tour lasted only about 15 minutes and no questions were taken at the photo-op, officials said through Gov. DeSantis they were on the phone with the president as he drove through the destruction. During that call, Trump, who visited the area five days after the hurricane, committed to upping the federal government’s share of the cost incurred from the storm to 90%, instead of the previous 75%.
That announcement, which later was shared at Trump’s campaign rally in Panama City Beach, was the biggest hope officials had going into this visit.
“It’s pretty obvious from his comments he remembers,” Cathey said. “90/10. That’s a big win for us.”
“They showed up for us,” Brudnicki said.
Meanwhile, the push for supplemental disaster aid continues to stall in Congress. Democrats and Republicans have struggled to reach a consensus on how much money should be allocated to Puerto Rico, and on Wednesday it was reported that Trump now is requesting money for the border as part of the package, further complicating negotiations.
Both sides blame each other.
The commitment to Tyndall and the news of the 90/10 split satisfied local officials for the time being, who said it will make rebuilding easier.
When Trump originally announced plans to come to the area, he was planning to visit only Panama City Beach. The visit to Tyndall Air Force Base was added during the weekend.