As Hurricane Ian Nears MacDill AFB, Some Airmen Pay for Their Own Evacuation

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 4 Regional Response Coordination Center has been activated in response to Hurricane Ian. FEMA and its partners are working around the clock in preparation for the hurricane’s arrival on land. Federal Emergency Management Agency photo.

Federal Emergency Management Agency photo.

An Air Force noncommissioned officer stationed at MacDill Air Force Base faced a dreadful choice the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 27: Stay and ride out Hurricane Ian, which was expected to bring 10 feet of floodwater to the Tampa area, or evacuate and pay for his own travel and expenses, even as many of his Air Force co-workers evacuating with him would do so knowing they were going to be reimbursed for the same costs.

“Now, it’s literally coming right towards where I live — we live south of the base — the center of it, it’s like right where I live,” the service member said. “But again, I’m not in an evacuation zone, so I’m expected to still stay here.”

MacDill issued orders Tuesday that allowed any service members who live on base or in most coastal areas around Tampa to evacuate with full expenses reimbursed by the Air Force. But many service members who live just outside of designated flood zones — even just a block away — did not fall under those orders and will have to decide whether the cost is worth it to flee the storm.

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A WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft assigned to the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron flies in the eye of Hurricane Ian Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman.

US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman.

Florida’s emergency planning uses a zone system to determine hurricane and flooding threats, classifying addresses from Zone A, the most likely to flood or sustain damage, to Zone E, the least likely to flood or sustain damage. MacDill announced mandatory or voluntary evacuations — both with reimbursement — for all members who live in Zones A, B, and C for the four counties directly around Tampa: Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, and Hernando. Manatee County was covered with orders for Zones A and B, and Sarasota County received evacuation orders for Zone A.

But many service members, like the Air Force NCO referenced above, live in towns covered by all five zones. In the NCO’s town, south of Tampa but near highly flood-prone areas, many streets in Zone A are just a block or two away from Zone D or even Zone E.

As Ian bears down, the difference of perhaps 500 feet in a neighborhood could be the difference between seeking safer ground with Air Force support or paying thousands of dollars for scarce hotel rooms — if any are available at all — and gas and food at inflated prices on the road.

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The Hillsborough County evacuation zoning as of Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. Hillsborough County image.

Hillsborough County image.

The Air Force NCO was told by their chain of command that they could evacuate and should notify the appropriate leadership where they would be relocating to, but they would have to pay for any expenses associated with the evacuation because they don’t live in a mandatory evacuation zone.

By early afternoon, the service member and their spouse decided the risk of staying was not worth it for them and their several young children — even if they would have to foot the bill.

“So yeah, being in the house for an extended amount of time with no power in Florida is probably not the best, best circumstance,” the NCO said.

The Air Force NCO had previously experienced an evacuation while stationed at Hurlburt Field when all military personnel were ordered to evacuate.

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Capt. Davis White, a 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron aerial reconnaissance weather officer, monitors a radar screen during a flight into Hurricane Ian Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman.

US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman.

For that evacuation, the NCO said, no one questioned whether troops lived off or on base. They simply followed orders to “get out.”

Ian is expected to pass over Tampa around 8 a.m. on Thursday.

MacDill authorities ordered the base’s KC-135 fleet to leave by Tuesday morning and ordered all people living in on-base housing out by noon.

Hurlburt Field, located in the northwestern region of Florida, has not issued an evacuation order for all military personnel, but it is in Hurricane Condition 5. The base alerted surrounding residents that they would see an uptick in aircraft leaving the base to be parked in a safe area outside of the storm’s reach.

The storm was expected to glance but not directly impact Tyndall Air Force Base, about 300 miles northwest of MacDill. The base had not issued any mandatory evacuation orders by Tuesday afternoon.

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Lt. Col. Dave Gentile, WC-130J aircraft commander, flies a 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron aircraft into Hurricane Ian Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. The 53rd WRS, or Hurricane Hunters, flies missions into hurricanes to collect data for forecasters at the National Hurricane Center. US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman.

US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman.

However, a number of complaints emerged online that Tyndall’s private housing contractor was not allowing those who lived on base to board up their homes.

“So I can’t really speak to it because all of our housing is privatized by Balfour Beatty. They’ll have their own rules set,” Scott Johnson, the 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs chief of media operations told Coffee or Die Magazine. “So essentially, all those people there are renters, and so their landlord is going to make those decisions.”

Balfour Beatty did not respond to Coffee or Die’s inquiries.

At a Pentagon press briefing, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the Florida National Guard had more than 3,200 troops activated and an additional 1,800 standing by for possible activation.

“Florida has pre-positioned Guard soldiers, airmen, and equipment at bases and armories around the state in preparation for deploying them to areas impacted by the storm,” Ryder said. “These Guardsmen will provide route-clearing search and rescue teams to support flood control and security.”

Ryder also said aviation assets, such as helicopters, were on standby in case they are needed, and that neighboring states are prepared to make 2,000 of their own Guard troops available.

The Defense Department has also identified Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, as well as Moody Air Force Base, Robins Air Force Base, and Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany — all in Georgia — as both incident-support bases and federal staging areas, Ryder said. In those roles, they will provide logistics support to disaster areas, if needed.

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Joshua is a staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis that followed the death of George Floyd. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, Joshua grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he earned his CrossFit Level 1 certificate and worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. Joshua went on to work in paramedicine for more than five years, much of that time in the North Minneapolis area, before transitioning to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married, has two children, and is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in multimedia journalism. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion, which is where he publishes poetry focused on his life experiences.
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