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Would a hurricane destroy Largo City Hall?

Largo City Hall was built in 1973, before Hurricane Andrew ushered in sturdier construction standards in Florida in 1992. City officials worry that the building and computer servers could be damaged in a storm.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Largo City Hall was built in 1973, before Hurricane Andrew ushered in sturdier construction standards in Florida in 1992. City officials worry that the building and computer servers could be damaged in a storm.

LARGO — Discussions by city officials earlier this year about building a new data center to house the city's computer servers centered on the necessity because the current location — City Hall — is vulnerable to storm damage. Even a Category 1 hurricane could damage or destroy it, they said.

This raises an unsettling question: What would happen if a hurricane hit Largo? Would City Hall survive?

There's not necessarily a simple answer to that question.

"As far as what actually happens, no one knows," Assistant City Manager Mike Staffopoulos said.

"It's all theory until the wind starts blowing," said Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert.

Computer models have shown that City Hall could be vulnerable to damage from high winds in a hurricane. The models also show that the building could be affected by flooding from the drainage channel that runs next to it.

There's no simple fix.

Why not reinforce City Hall to make it stormproof? That would be far too expensive, officials said.

It was 13 years ago that Largo's municipal government moved into the former Aegon office complex at 201 Highland Ave. just north of East Bay Drive. The 56,000-square-foot building that houses City Hall was built in 1973, well before 1992's Hurricane Andrew ushered in sturdier construction standards in Florida.

A couple of years ago, during discussions about replacing City Hall's roof, Largo officials looked into the price of strengthening the building by adding bracing to its support columns.

That turned out to be "cost-prohibitive," Staffopoulos said. It would cost millions.

"At that point," he said, "you may as well start looking at a new building."

So what would Largo leaders do if a hurricane knocked down City Hall?

In the short term, they would likely move many of the city's operations into the Largo Community Center, which is a lot sturdier. That building, at 400 Alt. Keene Road, opened in 2011 and is rated to withstand winds of up to 140 mph. It has a generator that could power the building for a week.

In a worst-case scenario, the city could also use space in the Largo Public Library, which opened in 2005, and the new Highland Recreation Center, which opened a few months ago. Both are far more hurricane-resistant than City Hall.

In the long term, Largo would rebuild City Hall if it were destroyed. The city has wind insurance.

In the meantime, city manager Mac Craig is hoping for the best. He notes that City Hall withstood 1985's Hurricane Elena, a Category 3 storm that stalled in the Gulf of Mexico for days and brutalized Florida's west coast before eventually making landfall near Biloxi, Miss.

The city has accordion shutters on hand to protect the building's windows. The City Hall campus also houses the Largo Police Department's headquarters and the city's Emergency Operations Center, both of which are more hurricane-resistant than City Hall.

One worry is that if a hurricane hit this season, the servers on the second floor could be endangered. They are the backbone for everything from the police dispatch system to the city's financial management.

The city's new $3 million data center, which is to be built across the street from the library, will be designed to withstand Category 5 winds. But it won't be finished until next summer, Schubert said.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151.

Would a hurricane destroy Largo City Hall? 08/30/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 3, 2013 1:18pm]
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