|Date:||September 20, 2017|
|Author:||Michael Williams and Krista Torralva|
Across Central Florida, the ground is giving way as gaping holes are opening in backyards, schoolyards and roadways. The culprits are sinkholes and washouts — and victims wonder if the cause could be the extra water fromHurricane Irma.
While the two may look similar on the surface, their causes differ — and only official inspectors will be able to tell homeowners with damages if they can recoup costs from the storm’s effects.
Sinkholes are natural occurrences caused by the erosion of bedrock over time and can open without provocation, experts say. Florida is built on a limestone bed, making the state — especially areas of western Central Florida — particularly vulnerable.
“Limestone has a lot of holes in it. It’s a bit like Swiss cheese,” said David Wilshaw, a professional geologist with over 30 years of experience. As soil is eroded over the years, it may eventually collapse, causing a gap that can measure hundreds of feet across, he said.
In Apopka, one family watched Tuesday as their home of 49 years was swallowed by the earth.
Garry and Ellen Miller haven’t decided whether to rebuild their three-bedroom, two-bathroom home on the same land. Ellen Miller, 69, said her husband wants to leave. But she hates to go.
I don’t want to build another house — I want my house back,” she said.
An adjuster visited the Millers on Wednesday to survey the damage — and delivered good and bad news: insurance will cover the loss of the house, but not to fill the hole and stabilize the dirt. An insurance agent advised the Millers to contact FEMA, since the sinkhole could have been triggered by the rain from Hurricane Irma.
sidents could be eligible for federal assistance if evidence ties sinkholes and washouts to Hurricane Irma, said FEMA spokesman Mark Peterson. Homeowners should first contact their insurers and then register on FEMA’s website to be considered. A home inspector will investigate the causes of the sinkholes and washouts.
“The process will determine whether or not they will be eligible for FEMA assistance,” he said.
Some experts argue the rain from hurricanes is the biggest contributor to sinkholes. Orange County sinkhole consultant and engineer Devo Seereeram has surveyed sinkholes in areas affected by hurricanes in Florida for years. He said water can push sand into the void and cause it to collapse.
Although grounds can be tested for potential sinkhole activity, it’s difficult to precisely predict when or where one will happen, said Doug Smith, co-principal of Geohazards, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in engineering and geology.
Smith, who is also a professor emeritus of geology at the University of Florida, said his crew of 25 responds to about 10 cases across the state each week.
Repairs for sinkholes, which usually involve pouring concrete in the cavity to seal the gap, can take a week and run upwards of $150,000, he said.
Washouts, meanwhile, are usually caused by storm waters carrying the top soil away.
“A washout is just heavy surface waters flowing laterally and washing away surface sediments. Those basically have man-made origins,” Smith said.
Such was the case at Apopka Memorial Middle School last week, where a surge of water from Hurricane Irma caused a drain pipe to collapse behind the school, creating a massive gully that appeared to be 25 yards across and hundreds of yards long in some places.
Not all washout cases are as dramatic. A hole that formed in the southbound lanes of U.S. Highway 441 Tuesday was covered in about six hours, said Villages Public Safety Lt. John Longacre.
Repairs from washouts are fairly easy, typically only requiring the hole to be replenished with replacement soil.
Meanwhile, at the Millers’, daughter Connie Hale watched as dirt kept caving in Wednesday, taking more of the house down. The couple estimated the hole had grown to 30 feet wide and 25 feet deep. Furniture and appliances that had dropped into the hole Tuesday were covered in dirt Wednesday.
“It’s coming down piece by piece,” Hale said.
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