Five months before the earth opened and swallowed his home, Buddy Wicker welcomed inspectors sent by State Farm Insurance to his house, who surveyed the property and deemed it free of any sinkhole risk.
Last week, a 20-foot-wide sinkhole yawned under Wicker’s Seffner, Fla., home, killing one of its residents, and sucking down a bedroom. The entire home was later demolished.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Wicker said he was stunned by the incident, given the inspector’s report. A State Farm spokeswoman would not comment specifically on the case but confirmed an inspector had been to Wicker’s house.
“They said everything looked good,” Wicker, 75, said. “They looked for cracks and stuff like that in the wall. They didn’t see any. I was told it was all OK.”
The incident Feb. 28 gained national attention and rekindled talk about sinkholes in Florida, which sees more of the phenomenon than any other state.
That night, Jeff Bush, 37, was asleep in his bedroom at the home at around 11 p.m. when the sinkhole suddenly opened, swallowing him and all of his bedroom furniture. Hillsborough County Fire Rescue called off the search for his body two days later when the area around the hole became too unstable.
Bush, who was between jobs and homes, had been living at the Seffner home since January, said Norman Wicker, 48. Norman Wicker, who is Buddy’s son, and four other residents of the home were readying for bed when they heard a loud crash, “like someone had ran into the house with a car,” he said. They ran into the room where Bush had been asleep.
The only thing that remained of the bedroom was a large, dirt-covered hole, he said. A mattress corner poked out of the dirt-filled opening.
“It reached up and took him and closed back up again,” Norman Wicker said. “I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my life – car accidents, people killed and maimed – but I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Buddy Wicker, who bought the home in 1974, said he received a notice in the mail in September from his insurance carrier offering sinkhole coverage. He decided to sign up for it – the first time he had ever done so. Two weeks later, an inspector visited his home, surveyed the property and said it was sinkhole-free, he said. He was awarded the sinkhole coverage.
“They were satisfied,” Buddy Wicker said.
It’s often difficult to detect sinkholes from visual inspections, said Anthony Randazzo, a former University of Florida geology professor and current president of Geohazards, a company that specializes in evaluating sinkholes.
Insurance inspectors, such as the one who visited Wicker’s home, look for pre-existing sinkhole damage and signs such as cracks in the walls, doors that don’t open or close correctly, shifting foundations and cracks in the driveway, he said. Even those don’t always tell the whole story.
In 2005, Randazzo surveyed a home about a half-mile from Wicker’s house on behalf of an insurance company. Subsurface testing, including ground-penetrating radar, detected an underground limestone cavern about to collapse that took 500 cubic yards of grout to fill, he said.
A 2011 law passed by the Florida Legislature makes it harder to get insurers to pay for expensive subsurface testing if a homeowner suspects their home is sitting on a sinkhole. The law was in response to claims by insurers that they were processing too many frivolous and fraudulent sinkhole claims, said Lynne McChristian, the Florida representative for the Insurance Information Institute.
“Sinkholes are hard to determine,” McChristian said. “The geological testing involved with a sinkhole is expensive. No one knows for certain when and where a sinkhole can happen.”
The Seffner sinkhole was more than a human tragedy, Buddy Wicker said. It was the abrupt vanishing of 40 years worth of family belongings and a place where his five kids, 13 grandkids and 17 great grandkids grew up, learned to walk and went to school.
Items lost in the sinking and demolition of the home included certificates and other mementos from his 20-year career in the Navy, pictures of great grandparents, letters his wife wrote him while he was in the Navy, clips of grandchildren’s first hair, clothes and the diary of his wife, now deceased.
“It’s like losing a family member,” Buddy Wicker said. “That house had become part of my family.”
He said State Farm has provided financial relief for him and family. He hopes that continues. Mostly, he’s happy he signed up for sinkhole coverage when he did.
“God works in mysterious ways,” he said.