President Trump’s tour Monday of devastation wrought by Hurricane Michael took him close to Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base, where more than a dozen F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets were damaged after being left in the path of the powerful storm.
The pricey fighter jets — some possibly damaged beyond repair — were caught in the widespread destruction that took at least 18 lives, flattened homes, downed trees and buckled roads from Florida to Virginia.
“We’re doing more than has probably ever been done,” Mr. Trump said of the recovery effort, as he and first lady Melania Trump visited a FEMA aid distribution center in Lynn Haven, Florida, where they handed out water bottles.
The decision to leave roughly $7.5 billion in aircraft in the path of a hurricane raised eyebrows, including among defense analysts who say the Pentagon’s entire high-tech strategy continues to make its fighter jets vulnerable to weather and other mishaps when they are grounded for repairs.
“This becomes sort of a self-defeating cycle where we have $400 million aircraft that can’t fly precisely because they are $400 million aircraft,” said Dan Grazier, a defense fellow at Project on Government Oversight. “If we were buying simpler aircraft then it would be a whole lot easier for the base commander to get these aircraft up and in working order, at least more of them.”
Reports on the number of aircraft damaged ranged from 17 to 22 or about 10 percent of the Air Force’s F-22 fleet of 187.
The Air Force stopped buying F-22s, considered the world’s most advanced fighter jets, in 2012. The aircraft is being replaced by the F-35, another high-tech but slightly less-expensive aircraft.
Later in the tour, at an emergency command center in Georgia, Mr. Trump said the damage to the F-22s couldn’t be avoided because the aircraft were grounded and the storm moved quickly.
“We’re going to have a full report. There was some damage, not nearly as bad as we first heard,” he said when asked about the F-22s, which cost about $339 million each.
“I’m always concerned about cost. I don’t like it,” Mr. Trump said.
Still, the president remains a fan of the high-tech fighter jet.
“The F-22 is one of my all-time favorites. It is the most beautiful fighter jet in the world. One of the best,” he said.
The Air Force managed to fly 33 of the F-22s to safety, but maintenance and repair issues kept 22 of the notoriously finicky aircraft on the ground when the powerful storm hit the base.
About 49 percent of the F-22s are out of action at any given time, according to an Air Force report this year.
Michael ripped into the Florida panhandle Wednesday as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 155 mph, and cut a path of destruction across the southeast after leveling most of the resort town of Mexico Beach where it made landfall.
The death toll Monday climbed to 18, with eight dead in Florida, three in North Carolina, one in Georgia and six in Virginia.
At least 46 people were still unaccounted for in Mexico Beach, where search-and-rescue teams were scouring debris. So far, one death in the town was attributed to the storm.
About 241,000 people remained without power across the region Monday, down from 2.5 million in the immediate aftermath of the storm, according to the Edison Electric Institute.
Mr. Trump began his tour by surveying the damage from Marine One, flying over devastated areas. The president could see thousands of uprooted tree and houses with roofs missing, some covered in blue tarps.
On the ground in Lynn Haven, about five miles inland, Mr. Trump and the first lady walked through a neighborhood strewn with fallen trees, smashed cars and obliterated homes.
“These are massive trees, that have been just ripped out of the earth,” said Mr. Trump. “I’ve seen pictures but it is hared to believe. When you are above it in a plane and see the total devastation, see no houses left, not even the pads.”