Sinkhole swallows homes in Florida

(CNN)A sinkhole in Florida that swallowed two houses appears to have stopped expanding, authorities said Friday night, meaning a recovery and repair operation can begin.

“The hole itself now appears to be dormant,” Kevin Guthrie, Pasco County’s assistant administrator for public safety, said at a news conference.
Nine other houses have been evacuated in Land O’ Lakes, a residential area about 20 miles north of Tampa, Guthrie said. Power has been cut to around 100 houses in the neighborhood. No injuries were reported.
    The sinkhole, estimated to be 250 by 225 feet and 50 feet deep, is full of water and not draining because of debris, Guthrie said. It’s also looks like it’s full of household chemicals and septic tank parts.
    “We’re treating this in essence as a haz-mat incident,” he said.

    Fast-moving sinkhole

    Authorities were called Friday morning about a depression the size of a small pool that a boat on the property was falling into.
    Pasco County Sheriff’s Deputy Jay Murphy said he arrived at 7:48 a.m. ET to find the sinkhole had formed and reached the corner of one house.
    Nobody was home, he said, but fire and rescue personnel were able to get two dogs out before one corner of the house fell into the sinkhole.
    By this point, the sinkhole was moving quickly, with “large chunks of the ground actually caving in,” he said.
    Murphy said he went to the second house and helped an elderly woman and two other females get out. Other deputies started yelling for them to move quickly because the ground was collapsing underneath the corner of the house, he said.
    The residents of the first house drove up in time to see the rest of their house destroyed, Murphy said, speaking to reporters in front of the sinkholes.
    “As soon as they got here, what you see now is what they witnessed as the house caved into the hole,” the deputy said. “They were unable to get any belongings. Everything they owned was in there.”
    Murphy said he and a resident of the second house went back inside to retrieve medications and documents. People who lived in some other houses removed some possessions and pets.
    Asked to estimate the speed of the sinkhole, Murphy said, “You’re looking at about half an hour in time from (being) only a couple of feet across to taking up their entire yard to taking in part of the house and reaching over into the next house.”

    Previous investigations

    Pasco County records show the houses were built on the site of a sinkhole, Guthrie said.
    Authorities have not said what caused this sinkhole.
    Many sinkholes form when acidic rainwater dissolves limestone or similar rock beneath the soil, leaving a large void that collapses when it’s no longer able to support the weight of what’s above, whether that be an open field, a road or a house.
    Sinkholes are particularly common in Florida, which rests on a nearly unbroken bed of limestone, according to the Florida Sinkhole Research Institute. They often happen in Central Florida, including the Tampa area.

    ‘High level of anxiety’

    Sheriff Chris Nocco said deputies will be stationed in the neighborhood tonight to protect residents and notify them of any problems.
    “For citizens, our hearts break for you,” he said. “We know there’s a high level of anxiety … I know it’s going to be very hard for you to sleep tonight. Any bump in the night, you’re going to wonder what’s going on with your house.”
    Earlier in the day, Guthrie and Nocco said they couldn’t predict when the sinkhole would stop growing. It grew 25 feet to 30 feet per hour in the morning but had slowed by afternoon to 10 feet per hour, Guthrie said.
    Until it stopped, crews were limited in what they could do, Guthrie said.
    “We’ve not had any significant movement in the sinkhole in the last hour and a half or so,” he said about 7:30 p.m. ET Friday, adding that the hole could start growing again if it rains heavily.

    Septic tank worries

    The neighborhood uses septic tanks, not a sewer system — a worry since the sinkhole might grow so large it connects to a nearby lake, Guthrie said.
    “We will have three if not four septic tanks that will start merging with the lake,” he said.
    Nocco urged people to stay away from the neighborhood. A fence will be erected around the affected houses and roads will be closed, he said.
    “This is going to be a couple of weeks, maybe a month-long operation,” Guthrie said.

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