When Hurricane Michael destroyed the Panhandle last month, Panama City officials asked state emergency managers to send tents and portable showers for residents.

The storm had flattened thousands of homes, knocked out power all over and tore up roads in coastal and inland areas.

After no response for eight days, Panama City awarded a $2.3 million emergency contract for a company to provide temporary comfort stations with bathrooms, showers and electricity.

The city and the Florida Division of Emergency Management are now at odds over the response and lawmakers are talking about improving communication during disasters.

"It seemed so disorganized," Panama City Manager Mark McQueen said about the state's efforts immediately after the storm. "It was very unresponsive. I was so frustrated by the lack of response to getting the comfort stations."

The state never sent the stations because Panama City didn't request them through Bay County, which Florida law requires.


Andrew Wilber, press secretary for the state emergency management director, said the state is not responsible for coordinating requests between counties and municipalities.

The state held daily calls, and emergency planners were in constant communication with counties, including Bay, he added.

"During these calls, county emergency managers had the opportunity to express any unmet needs, Wilber said.

He said the state fielded about 1,700 requests for aid after the storm from Bay County. The state used satellite phones and 30 amateur radio operators to communicate, he said.

McQueen said it's impossible to communicate with the county when all systems have failed.

Bay County's emergency center lost contact with the state for about five hours during the storm, said Mark Bowen, the county's chief of emergency services.

The state requires emergency operation centers in all 67 counties to request help through a web-based portal. But the 145 mph winds from the Category 4 storm decimated Internet and phone cables across the Panhandle.

Residents couldn't use cell phones to call for help, and government leaders could not spread messages to communities.

"You can't rely on this single line for communication," McQueen said. "I don't think anybody at the state has thought about that."

State Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, represents six Panhandle counties.

"I was completely surprised we didn't have a backup system" to communicate with people, Gainer said. "There was a lot of confusion in and around Bay County."

As the next legislative session approaches in March, Gainer said Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, has asked him to come up with solutions to solve communication problems during disasters.

The magnitude of Hurricane Michael, Grainer said, exposed shortcomings in the way Florida prepares for storms.

"I can assure you that you will see all kinds of legislation for a backup system," Gainer said. "There was so much that we didn't have experience on. It was horrible."

Craig Fugate, the state's emergency management director during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons and later the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the state cannot handle requests from municipalities during a catastrophic event.

It's better to centralize requests through each county's emergency operations center, Fugate said, adding: "If someone doesn't like it, they need to change the law. It works well."

McQueen, a U.S. Army Reserves two-star general who joined the city two weeks before Hurricane Michael struck, said he used a police officer's phone to request comfort stations from the state.

He expected a convoy of trucks to roll into town, but they didn't. The parts arrived "piecemeal." A truck, for instance, arrived at midnight with one tent, McQueen said.

The City Commission unanimously approved the emergency contract on Oct. 13 because it feared "civil unrest" would erupt if residents couldn't shower or cool off.

The contract said the state couldn't locate or provide comfort stations and "when some parts of comfort stations did arrive from the state such parts were inadequate to meet the needs of citizens."

Turns out, the state does not own comfort stations or have contracts with vendors to provide them if a local government requests them.

McQueen said he hopes the federal government will reimburse the city for the comfort stations. The vendor started removing the temporary stations last week, he added.

The contract went to Trumbull Bottled Water, a firm owned by the family of state Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City. The city expects to pay about $2.3 million for the stations, compared to a Texas firm's proposal of $3.4 million.

"It was the right thing to do," McQueen said. "Why is this not standard equipment that gets deployed?"