The popping sounds Belinda and Jamin Sell heard late one September night were unusual and alarming, like nothing they had heard before.
They didn't immediately know it, but the ripping and tearing that echoed in the darkness were the sounds of their home's foundation collapsing into sinkholes.
They discovered the damage the next day. Walls had cracked. Bricks snapped loose from the exterior wall of the bedroom where they had been sleeping. A water pipe burst in the basement. One corner of their house sank about 4 inches.
"I'll never forget the noise," Belinda Sell said last week, nearly three months after she woke up in what felt like a horror show.
The Sells have cashed in their savings, spending $55,000 to shore up their Whitehall Township home and fill in the sinkholes. They thought they would be OK and made plans to make the necessary repairs so they could move back in.
Then, in early October, another corner of the house sank, causing more damage. Tests revealed even more sinkholes under their property. The additional repair costs are estimated at $155,000, which would bring the total bill to more than what they paid for the house.
"We have nothing left," Belinda Sell said. "We spent everything we had."
The Sells are living with relatives in Walnutport while they seek help. But they've found there is no help for people in their situation.
"The government and the state and everyone else involved says, 'Sorry, you're on your own, we can't help you,' " Jamin Sell said. "Where are they? Where's the safety net?"
Their homeowners insurance from State Farm won't cover the repairs because they didn't have sinkhole coverage, something that's not standard on homeowners policies in Pennsylvania.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has denied the Sells' claim for disaster relief available to victims of Hurricane Irene, which blew through the Lehigh Valley on Aug. 27-28, about a week before the sinkholes opened Sept. 7. The Sells, and the experts they have hired, believe the hurricane caused or contributed to the damage.
The second sinkhole damage occurred Oct. 2, which falls within the federally designated disaster period for Tropical Storm Lee. That storm came about a week after Hurricane Irene, and a couple days before the first sinkhole opened on the Sells' property. Combined, the two storms dumped about a foot of rain on the Lehigh Valley. But the Sells can't file a relief claim from that storm because Lehigh County wasn't declared a disaster area, while surrounding counties were.
Unlike other states, Pennsylvania has no disaster relief fund that homeowners can tap when they have no other options. A state senator from Luzerne County says that should change.
Whitehall Township hasn't condemned their home, but the Sells moved out because they don't believe it is safe, and because the water and sewer service was shut off. They don't think the home is repairable, at least at a price they can afford. And they rightfully are worried about the long-term stability of their property.
They still are paying the mortgage because they don't want to foreclose and ruin their credit.
The Sells say they don't want to point fingers at anyone, but they question how their requests for help have been handled. And they wonder why sinkhole coverage isn't standard on homeowners insurance, especially in sinkhole-prevalent areas like the Lehigh Valley.
They don't recall their insurance agent even offering sinkhole coverage.
"We didn't even know there was such a thing," said Belinda Sell, who works in The Morning Call's classified advertising department.
State Farm spokeswoman Sarah Bruner told me Friday that the Sells' insurance claim had been reopened, based on their concerns.
She said the Sells' agent doesn't recall whether he offered them sinkhole coverage.