The March 3 tornado that struck Lee County, killing 23 and injuring close to 100, was an intensely local event, but the national exposure of the storm’s magnitude and catastrophic damage quickly brought nonlocals to the disaster zone’s aid.
The Auburn University Regional Airport played an important role in that effort, serving not only in its normal capacity as a landing site for travelers flying into the area from all points, but also becoming a base for helicopters and aircraft used in the assessment and recovery operations immediately after the monstrous EF-4 tornado struck with its 170-mph winds.
Perhaps most notable for the airport was its use in providing a secure and beneficial location for the president of the United States to arrive and visit.
“We were in more of a support role. It was not our airport that day,” chuckled Bill Hutto, the locally well-known, longtime airport director who continues to be instrumental in the facility’s growth and that of the Auburn University aviation program.
“We were pleased to be a good landing spot,” Hutto said of President Donald Trump’s visit March 8 to tour the devastation and meet with survivors, first-responders and volunteers from Beauregard, Smiths Station and others from throughout Lee County and the region who came to help.
“We hosted a lot of law enforcement and support staff, especially helicopters,” he said. “There were not a lot of supplies that came by air, mostly because of the good roads we have. But the airport is prepared for that, too, if needed.”
Those kinds of preparations are not new to Hutto and his staff, as the Auburn airport in the past has participated in other disaster response efforts, including serving as a base for parked planes that flew to Lee County to escape hurricanes on the Gulf Coast.
Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said that kind of help being offered is typical of Hutto and his support teams.
“Bill Hutto and the staff at the airport are quick to accommodate in any situation involving public safety operations,” Jones said. “Whether it is the operations desk, maintenance crews or flight line personnel, they are professionals.
“They play an important role in facilitating delivery of special equipment and assistance in coordinating aircraft required in law enforcement missions.”
Hutto and other airport officials routinely participate in training and meetings with the Lee County Emergency Management Agency, the state EMA and other first-responder and emergency entities.
“When someone comes here to help us or to ride out the storm somewhere else,” Hutto said, “we try to be ready.”
Trump arrived by helicopter on Marine One, and along with him came several other aircraft carrying additional security, equipment and other public officials.
“That was a busy day,” Hutto said, “but we’re glad we could be of help.”
Trump that week declared Lee County a federal disaster area, opening the door to federal aid to assist in the ongoing recovery.
State and federal officials continue to visit the area to take part in that effort.