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Sinkholes plague homeowners

The drought brings a new sensation to Gospel Island homes: "You felt like you were on the Titanic.''

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 24, 2001


INVERNESS -- John Steelfox started noticing hairline cracks in his walls around Thanksgiving. Within a few months, the bathroom floor in his Gospel Island home sloped dramatically.

"When you were in there, you felt like you were on the Titanic, it was sinking so much," Steelfox recalled Monday.

Two sinkholes were developing under Steelfox's home: a 14-foot-deep cavity that started 20 feet below the surface, and a 6-foot-deep air pocket located 25 feet below. Several neighbors were also getting sinkholes, and it became obvious to Steelfox that the drought was the culprit.

"I don't see any other reason for it," said Steelfox, 42, an appraiser at the county Property Appraiser's Office. "The house was there 15 years, and there hadn't been any problems like this."

Clearly, the drought has caused water levels to drop -- not just above ground, where people can see the lake shorelines receding, but underground, where the shrinking water tables allow air pockets to emerge. A rash of sinkholes has appeared in Gospel Island in recent months, and experts expect the problem to spread as the drought continues.

"When the National Weather Service predicts we are going to have an unusually dry summer, that indicates to me that (the sinkhole problem) will continue to get worse," said Art Dillman, co-owner of All Coast Engineering, a Brooksville firm that surveys sites worldwide for sinkholes.

Each year, Dillman's firm surveys between 200 and 250 sites, many of them in Central Florida. Last year, 5 percent of the sites had sinkholes, but so far this year, the number is more like 25 percent, he said.

Ten of those sites have been in Gospel Island, Dillman said. Several families, including the Steelfoxes, have sold their sinking homes for a fraction of their original worth, relying on their homeowners insurance to cover the loss.

"The insurance company gave us (a check for) the insured value of the house, which basically covered our costs plus a little bit," said Steelfox, who moved out of the home with his wife and two children last month.

Tom Adams, owner of Bay Area Realty Corp., bought Steelfox's home and three others in Gospel Island with plans to repair and resell them. Workers can either fill the sinkholes with grout or stabilize the home by driving pylons into the ground, he said.

Adams said he tells potential buyers about the sinkhole repairs and provides a two-year warranty. With the drought worsening, Adams said, he has been "very active" in the Inverness and Gospel Island areas.

"I bought a waterfront home (on Gospel Island) that has a dock going out into an open field that has 10-foot weeds growing in it," Adams said. When the effects of the drought are that severe above ground, it is no surprise that sinkholes are developing underneath, he said.

Dillman said "nobody's untouchable" when it comes to sinkholes. His firm has found sinkholes throughout the east side of the county, in Beverly Hills, around Crystal River and in Homosassa Springs.

A sinkhole may be present if cracks appear in the walls; doors or windows no longer close properly; or tree roots suddenly emerge from the ground, Dillman said. Homeowners should call their insurance agent if they suspect they have a sinkhole, as homeowners insurance in Florida must cover any damages or losses from a sinkhole, he said.

John and Theresa Steelfox are in a rental home with their two kids for now, but plan to put their insurance money toward a new house.

"We're moving to Lecanto to get as high as we can," Mrs. Steelfox said with a chuckle.

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