Florida's notorious history with sinkholes took a tragic turn recently, when a Seffner man, Jeff Bush, lost his life after one opened up underneath his bedroom in the middle of the night. Rescuers were unable to recover Bush, and the sinkhole has since been filled in, and his home razed.
According to reports, there have only been a few deaths related to Florida sinkholes. Considering their frequency, and unpredictable locations -- Interstate 4 has been hit numerous times, for instance -- the low number of fatalities can almost seem surprising. Of course, the fact that only a small number have died hardly lessens the horror of Mr. Bush's death.
The question is whether this latest, killer sinkhole can serve as an omen of things to come. A March 5 USA Today story delves into the issue, with a Florida geologist noting, "As our footprint on the land increases, the likelihood we'll encounter sinkholes will increase."
CNN posted this recent report on Florida sinkholes to Youtube.
Of particular note is a recent change in Florida law. In 2011, the Florida legislature altered the state's laws related to insurance coverage of sinkholes, basically tightening up the claims process and creating new requirements for policyholders making claims.
According to Politifact's report, "To fight sinkhole fraud, the new law ... shortens the window for filing sinkhole damage claims, and limits claims for damage caused by sinkholes to primary structures. Starting Jan. 1, 2012, insurers will not cover damage to driveways, sidewalks, decks, patios or structures other than the home that are directly or indirectly caused by sinkholes."
A contractor who performs sinkhole-related work told ENR Southeast that the result of these legal changes has caused sinkhole claims to decrease dramatically. (The USA Today story quoted another contractor who made much the same claim.) He added that the industry cited public safety as one of its main concerns in opposing the 2011 legal changes.
The degree of sinkhole-related fraud that was going on seems debatable, though. For instance, according to a 2010 report conducted by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, "From 2006 through 2010, only 203 claims were reported to the Department of Financial Services Division of Insurance Fraud—less than 1% of the total claims reported."
The more ballyhooed number from the report was the increasing number of claims. According to the report, the total number of sinkhole claims increased from 2,360 in 2006, to 6,694 in 2010. Politicians, including Gov. Rick Scott (R) seemed to imply the increase was due to fraud, a fact that Politifact noted in its report.
However, readers may recall that another state agency, the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection, recently officially noted increased sinkhole activity as a growing concern. When a sinkhole opened near the Hillsborough County landfill -- located in close proximity to Tampa Bay Water's reservoir, and not that far from Seffner -- FDEP studied the issue, and determined that it didn't bode well for a reservoir with 3 billion extra gallons of capacity.
As ENR Southeast reported, the agency noted its concerns to the utility by stating, "The adjacent maximum capacity irrigation well pumping for drought and freeze crop protection appears to create a dynamic, rather than stable, geologic setting for the reservoir."
Soon after, the utility announced it would not pursue the $42-million expansion, though the $129-million redo would continue.
Indeed, if extreme weather patterns take hold, and extended periods of drought start to become more common, for instance -- causing more underground conditions that can lead to sinkhole development, along with more well pumping -- sinkholes may start popping up with even more frequency.
Hopefully they won't be of the "killer" variety.