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What if? Category 4 storm would hit MacDill hard

Story and art by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer
Art by Nick Stubbs

A category 4 storm would put MacDill almost completely underwater.

Had Hurricane Charley stayed on its original predicted course, MacDill would have been in the path of the raging storm and with Hurricane Frances headed this way, leadership and personnel assigned to MacDill are concerned. Larry Clarke, 6th Civil Engineer Squadron readiness manager, along with Randy Ray, head of readiness training, spend a good portion of their existence preparing for such disasters. Hypothesizing and evaluating such disaster scenarios is their specialty and both were asked "what if things had been different that day?"

Friday, Aug. 13, 2004: By 10 p.m. MacDill Air Force Base is underwater as the winds drop from category 4 level to tropical storm speeds. Hurricane Charley moves northeast to continue its destruction.

The command and control team at the Florida State Fairgrounds has its own problems. The storm jumped from category 2 to 4 so quickly, the team had to buckle down there and hope for the best. The Fairgrounds are a category 3 refuge only and when a storm hits category 4 strength, the plan is to evacuate the entire region. The team sustained considerable wind damage, is dealing with soaked equipment and some minor injuries.

The first concern is for anyone who stayed on MacDill to provide security. U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command members determined to keep their sensitive areas secure, despite the risks, are believed by some to have stayed on base. Ride-out teams of the 6th Air Mobility Wing were prepared to stay but evacuated once the storm hit category 4.

As the adrenaline levels drop proportionately with the winds at the Fairgrounds and things are being put back in order, the reality of the powerful storm sets in.

Word trickles in that the water is believed to be up to the second story on some of MacDill's lower-lying buildings. The Fam Camp is 10 feet under the surface, along with the golf course and the waste water treatment plant. To enter the hospital you would have to go in a second-story window. The new Davis Conference Center is mostly submerged and waves are gradually battering in its walls and tiled roof.

Midnight: As the storm moves north, the winds reverse and begin to force out the waters of the Gulf and Tampa Bay. The same thing happened in the storm of 1921, Mr. Clarke notes, the last storm to make landfall at Tampa. But there was no MacDill to worry about in those days.

Mr. Ray wonders if there will be a MacDill when Charley's water recedes...

Saturday, Aug. 14: With most buildings on MacDill eight to 12 feet above sea level Charley left as least two to three feet of water in every building on base and much more in some. Electrical infrastructure everywhere is in shambles, as is the wiring in nearly every building. There is no fresh water due to the lack of power. There is no wastewater treatment and sanitation is an immediate concern. Emergency crews led by Mr. Ray begin to "safe the base" and will be working around the clock for days. How long will it take?

"I can't even guess," said Mr. Ray. Mr. Clarke isn't sure, either, but suspects we are looking at two to four weeks.

What is clear, is that until some level of water, power and sanitation is restored, the masses of personnel needed to rebuild can't be brought in, said Mr. Clarke.

"It just isn't safe," he said.

It's learned that a few personnel did stay on base but the good news comes that they made it through without injury. They took refuge in what Mr. Clarke said would have been his choice of refuge if trapped on base during a category 4 storm: the second story of U.S. Special Operations Command.

"It's above the storm surge and protected from the roof damage that would damage the top floor," says Mr. Clarke.

Had they not made it to the building, "there is a very good chance they would not have come through it without injury," said Mr. Clarke. "Once you get to category 4 or 5, all bets are off.

"Technically speaking, there is nothing that can be done once you get to category 4," said Mr. Clarke. "There are no buildings at MacDill built to withstand that, so you just ride it out in the best way you can and hope for the best."

Day 5 after the storm: Debris on base is estimated at 400,000 cubic yards. Lumber, trees, cars, boats, house roofs and virtually all the trailer offices of Coalition Village are piled everywhere in twisted wrecks. Downed power lines have been secured, reports Mr. Ray but there likely are hidden hazards; so base access still is limited to emergency personnel and work crews. Checking for high-voltage electrical dangers, repairing water lines and inspecting building electrical systems and structural stability is the mission. Large numbers of personnel are needed for the cleanup and these things must be done to make it safe to bring in the Airmen and civilian workers needed to "recover" MacDill.

"Once we have sanitary, safe conditions and some way to feed everyone, we can get the people in we need to begin the work," said Mr. Clarke. "If we are not ready for them, it would do more harm than good (to bring them in)."

MacDill Airmen will play a big role in getting the base back on its feet, said Mr. Clarke.

"Recovering from a disaster (is) their mission and they (will) be a big force in clearing and helping in the recovery," he said.

Day 14: Military training and discipline, along with coordinated command and control is paying off. With precision and efficiency, the work proceeds. Air Mobility Command is pumping in manpower and equipment support and AMCs ability to move tons of cargo on short notice during war is proving invaluable in this emergency.

Day 30: The base is shaping up. Debris was removed by the tons and what remains is in neat piles awaiting pickup. The sounds of hammers, power saws and earth moving equipment abound and there is a feeling of accomplishment and some satisfaction, as MacDill begins to stabilize. Power and phones are at 80 percent and things are looking up.

At this point "we still have a long way to go and it could be a year or more before things are back to normal, maybe two years," said Mr. Clarke.

As assessments of base buildings and facilities continue, the decision will be made to bring many of them down to start over. Buildings in which water did not rise high enough to submerge electrical outlets will be repaired. The others will be torn down and new buildings erected.

Thousands of yards of carpet and other floor coverings are making their way on base, as are truckloads of lumber, concrete and steel. Security forces are stretched to the maximum and will be in the weeks ahead, as they grapple with the tremendous traffic coming onto base to support the rebuilding.

"Except for a few select people, I don't think we would be looking at anyone returning to their previous existence for a year or so," said Mr. Clarke. "It (will) take that long to get back to the point where things are normal again."

 

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