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Pence Says Storm-Damaged Base Will Be Rebuilt

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA) -- Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday vowed reconstruction of Tyndall Air Force Base in Northwest Florida, after the facility took a direct hit from Hurricane Michael just over two weeks ago.

Saying the message from the White House is, "We will rebuild Tyndall Air Force Base," Pence praised the actions of base commanders in preparing and evacuating the facility "on short notice" ahead of the powerful Category 4 storm.

"President Trump and I are committed to provide the resources necessary to rebuild Tyndall Air Force Base so that it can continue to be a vital and critical part of our national defense," said Pence, who toured the widespread damage at the 29,000-acre facility.

Since the Oct. 10 storm, state lawmakers and regional officials have expressed concern that the base, where pilots train to fly the F-22 stealth fighter, could face downsizing or closure.

The base employs about 11,000 military and civilian personnel. All but 93 airmen were evacuated prior to Michael, which made landfall in nearby Mexico Beach. No injuries were reported at the base, but video after the storm showed extensive damage to buildings and hangars that continued to shelter aircraft during the storm.

A Pentagon study in 2017 put a $3.4 billion value on the facilities at Tyndall and projected its annual economic impact --- combining payroll, expenditures and jobs created --- at $596 million.

Gov. Rick Scott, who joined Pence on the tour, called the base an economic driver impacting about 20,000 jobs in the region.

"It's not only just important to the safety of the country, but it's important for jobs," Scott said.

State Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, a Panama City resident, tweeted that the vice president's message represented "good news."

"Tyndall is a major part of this community," Patronis tweeted. "We will come back stronger."

Lawmakers arguing for the base have also pointed to its location near the Air Force Eastern Gulf Test and Training Range.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who is being challenged for his seat by Scott, said in a statement Thursday he was glad the White House is "paying attention to the situation at Tyndall."

"Given the extent of the destruction I saw there two weeks ago, it will take a long-term commitment in Congress to fully rebuild the base," Nelson said in a statement.

Pence noted the federal government has designated $100 million toward the recovery of the southeastern Bay County base, which is open during the day to service members and civilians to inspect and retrieve belongings from their homes.

"I want to assure you governor that we're going to not only continue to meet the federal obligations here at Tyndall Air Force Base, but we're going to continue to work with you and your team for all the families impacted by Hurricane Michael," Pence said during brief comments open to the media as the tour got underway.

Pence said pilot simulator training and air operations should return to Tyndall by the start of the new year.

The intent of the visit was to showcase the needs of the base, which President Donald Trump flew over during an Oct. 15 tour of the hurricane's overall destruction.

Pence was advised that eight of the 17 F-22 Raptors that had been sheltered at the base during the storm --- due to maintenance or safety issues --- flew out Wednesday, and the remainder of the planes should be ready to leave by early next week.

Before the storm, most of the F-22 jets assigned to the 325th Fighter Wing at Tyndall were moved to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Those planes were later relocated to the Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia.

In a letter Monday to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., expressed concern about the readiness of the nation's F-22 fleet, pointing to 31 percent of the 55 F-22s at Tyndall being designated "non-mission capable" before the hurricane.

"I ask you waste no time or effort in providing a supplemental funding request to Congress to repair and restore these aircraft to mission capable status as soon as possible," Rubio wrote.

Tyndall also houses the 601st Air Operations Center, which directs operations for NORAD Defensive Counter Air activities and responds to natural and manmade disasters.

"The News Service of Florida's Jim Turner contributed to this report."

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