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Rebuilding Tyndall AFB: Keesler AFB team helps restore communications

From left: Staff Sgt. Charlie Hegwer, Tech. Sgt. Skyler Shull and Airman Hunter Benson, 85th Engineering Installation Squadron, fill sandbags to place around tents in preparation of inclement weather at Tyndall Air Force Base, FL. The Airmen are part of a five-team team helping restore communication capabilities to the base after Hurricane Michael made landfall along the Florida Gulf Coast in mid-October. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

Staff Sgt. Charlie Hegwer, Tech. Sgt. Skyler Shull and Airman Hunter Benson, 85th Engineering Installation Squadron, fill sandbags to place around tents in preparation of inclement weather at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. The Airmen are part of a five-man team helping restore communication capabilities to the base after Hurricane Michael made landfall along the Florida Gulf Coast in mid-October. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

From left: Tech. Sgt. Skyler Shull, Airman Hunter Benson and Staff Sgt. Charlie Hegwer, 85th Engineer Installation Squadron, install three recycled antennae's on fabricated mounts for the Tyndall Enterprise Live Mission Operations Center facility at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, November 2, 2018. The TELMOC facility monitors flight status in the Gulf Coast and surrounding areas and had been damaged during Hurricane Michael. (U.S. Air Force Courtesy Photo)

Tech. Sgt. Skyler Shull, Airman Hunter Benson and Staff Sgt. Charlie Hegwer, 85th Engineer Installation Squadron, install three recycled antennaes on fabricated mounts for the Tyndall Enterprise Live Mission Operations Center facility at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., Nov. 2, 2018. The TELMOC facility, which monitors flight status in the Gulf Coast and surrounding areas, had been damaged during Hurricane Michael. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AFNS) -- Total devastation. No power. No running water. The scene on the ground at Tyndall Air Force Base was a grim, 'post-apocalyptic' one when a five man team from Keesler AFB's 85th Engineering Installation Squadron arrived in mid-October, just days after Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Gulf Coast.

Hurricane Michael was the strongest storm to hit Florida in nearly a century. Tyndall Air Force Base took a direct hit, resulting in catastrophic infrastructure damage.

"The closer we got to Tyndall, there was more and more devastation. All the trees were snapped and laid over, buildings completely devastated with no power, no clean water, when we first got to the base," said Capt. Nathan McWhirter, 85th EIS operations flight commander.

Quickly getting to work, the engineering team began assessing the buildings for any useable equipment and materials to get base communications up and running.

"We were doing all of our inspections using headlamps and hard hats, going into these buildings that are completely gutted. It looked like a complete war zone honestly," he said. "We were one of the first teams on base, so there were very few people here at the time too. It was kind of eerie and surreal surveying some of these buildings."

Despite the power outages and limited communication material, the crew has been able to successfully restore connectivity and avenues of communication around base. The engineering team has been able to get the base-wide 'giant voice' mass notification system up and running, as well as patching up new antennae's and fiber work to get air to ground communications connected. The biggest challenge to completing these projects McWhirter said, was the lack of usable equipment and lack of power.

"The hurricane knocked out all sorts of antennae's so we've been scrounging around, taking them off damaged towers and putting them on good towers. There's no material here, so we are just trying to salvage what we can," he said.

"A lot of the buildings don't have power still so that's a big limiter. [Civil engineering] is working super hard and trying to do it smartly. We don't want to turn power on to a building that's been destroyed and risk having a fire," McWhirter added. "We are trying to work on relocating these large communication nodules safely and cost effectively."

Although it has a long way to go before it's fully functional again, McWhirter said the base has come a long way in the short amount of time their team has been there. A tent city has been set up, with places to sleep and hot meals being provided, as well as clean water for bathing and drinking, making life easier for the on the ground reconstruction teams and returning personnel.

"More and more people started coming in, we were able to bring more and more assets in," he explained. "Just seeing the difference from when were first got here to today, is remarkable. There is still obviously tons of work that needs to be done, but just in these short couple of weeks things have gotten way better."

As the team prepares to transition back to Keesler AFB, conditions at Tyndall AFB have improved dramatically. More and more resources and personnel are arriving, all dedicated to bringing Tyndall AFB back to life. While they were just one piece of the overall restoration effort, McWhirter acknowledges that his team played a key role in the early recovery efforts.

"I just want to say how proud I am of my team and the work they are doing and the support we are getting back home from the 85th EIS and the 81st Training Wing; getting us out the door quickly and making sure we have everything that we need," said McWhirter. "The guys out here are really killing it and I'm proud to be part of a restoral effort. This is unprecedented thing to be able to build up a base that's been devastated. We've come a long way."

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