A master bedroom, a porch, a 14-foot boat and most of two houses were swallowed by the earth when a sinkhole opened up in a family's backyard in western Florida.
The gaping hole in the waterfront town of Dunedin was more than 70 feet wide by Friday. The ground began to collapse Thursday morning, and seven houses around the hole were evacuated, Fire Chief Jeff Parks told The Times. No one was injured.
Though local officials were shocked by the size of the crater, sinkhole disasters are about as common in Florida as alligators and sunshine.
"Is there a safe area of Florida in which to live with no chance of sinkholes?" the Florida Department of Environmental Protection asks on its website. "Technically, no."
In August, a sinkhole formed under a resort in central Florida, taking two buildings, and in February, a hole in Tampa -- about 25 miles from Dunedin -- swallowed a man who was in his bedroom. His body was never found.
Sinkholes form because the rock below the land slowly erodes, creating a void. When the surface suddenly collapses, it exposes a hole that's been growing for years.
Florida is sinkhole country because of the preponderance of limestone, which dissolves easily.
The Dunedin area is particularly at risk, with a "history of sudden steep-walled, wide sinkhole collapse," according to a map of the region's water management district.
By Friday afternoon, the massive hole -- which was just 12 feet across when authorities first arrived on the scene Thursday morning -- had apparently stopped growing, city engineer Thomas Burke said.
The city began demolishing the two houses Friday, Parks said. Simultaneously, the hole is being filled with dirt -- 12,000 cubic yards of it -- to prevent expansion and further damage to nearby homes.
“Until we get the hole filled up, we don’t know what’s going to happen with it,” Parks said.
Burke said that filling the hole would probably take a few days. However, the city was expecting heavy rain Friday evening, which could throw a wrench in the effort.
There had already been two sinkhole repairs on the block where the incident occurred, Burke said. But this hole is bigger than any in recent memory.
“The people who have been around the city for quite a while, in excess of 30 years, have no recollection of anything ever this big, probably by a factor of three or four times,” Burke said. “For us, this is a major, major situation.”
The evacuated families received help from the Red Cross but have since found alternate lodgings, said Janet McGuire, communications director for the American Red Cross' Florida west coast region.
“It was just very devastating for them,” she said. “It’s just so unnerving to see this happening to their home.”
McGuire said it was rare for sinkholes to affect residential areas like this.
“We deal with sinkholes, but usually it’s not this type of devastation,” she said.