TAMPA (FOX 13) –
Sinkholes have always been a worry for homeowners, but never a matter of life and death.
That all changed in March when 37-year-old Jeff Bush was sucked into a sinkhole in Seffner.
Now, thousands of people are living with sinkholes underneath them, and they are scared and angry, questioning whether Florida law is on their side.
Jim DiMarco saw first hand what happens when there’s a sinkhole under your home, and when the fix doesn’t work.
The home next to his in Spring Hill was demolished, and the hole filled in with clay and gravel.
DiMarco picked up the property for $20,000.
About 50 miles south to the south in Valrico, new homeowner Wade Griner didn’t know he had big problems until his little girl tapped him on the shoulder.
“I was sleeping one night and my daughter came in my room and said, dad there’s somebody in my room. I said baby there is not. Go back to bed — and kind of dismissed her comment,” he said.
Then, a few days later, DiMarco was on the side of the house and noticed a large crack.
The entire house had shifted.
The sound his daughter heard wasn’t a monster in the closet, it was a sinkhole.
“Basically I called her a liar, that just devastated me,” Griner recalled.
Griner started to notice more and more cracks, along with nail holes popping up, and tile cracking throughout his Valrico home.
The sinkhole was confirmed, and he wants it fixed, but he has been fighting with Citizens Insurance for almost two years.
After what happened in Seffner to Jeff Bush, it’s much more than just an inconvenience now.
“That kind of brings the fear back, I have four children,” Griner said.
Angela Parson, who lives in Gibsonton, finds herself in the same boat: a house that’s sinking, that she is still living in.
“I’m very stressed out about it and I worry a lot,” Parson said.
She’s also fighting with Citizens, but it could be any insurance company. When politicians changed the law in 2011 to fight fraudulent claims, they made it tougher on homeowners who want to be sure their homes are fixed correctly.
“If there’s this perception that sinkholes are fraud or don’t exist, and it’s an easy way to get at insurance money, it is not the truth. Sinkholes are a very real phenomenon that we deal with,” said Donna DeVaney-Stockham, an attorney who works with homeowners dealing with sinkholes.
She says in 2010, repairs would have been done “in consultation with the policyholder,” which was in the statute.
In 2012, the law was changed to read “with notice to the policyholder.”
Any hope the homeowner would get a say seems to be taken away.
“Citizens could bring out an engineer that says the insured must fix their home with silly putty and bubble gum, and the insured would have to sign a contract for that method of repair,” DeVaney-Stockham said.
What does Citizens say? They provided this statement:
“The law’s intent is very clear. Lawmakers directed all insurers, including Citizens, to ensure that sinkhole repairs are properly completed to protect the individual policyholder while reducing exposure and costs for all policyholders,” the company said.
The change is significant for people who live in the Tampa Bay area. Hillsborough County is part of an area known as “Sinkhole Alley,” which accounts for more than two-thirds of Florida’s sinkhole insurance claims.
From 2006 to 2010, the number of claims tripled. More than 100 sinkholes form every year in Florida, and they’re most common during the winter months.
While most are small, some sinkholes can be more than 100 feet deep.
Homeowners like Griner and Parson say they could be on the hook if the repair isn’t done right. That’s why they want a say, why they hired a lawyer, and why they are both holding out.
“It’s one of those things that just plays on you all the time. You think about it. When you see a new crack, you say really, a new nail hole, Really? My house is moving everyday.”
The houses are moving, and the homeowners are trying to hold on to hope — but they live everyday with a sinking feeling.