On May 8, 1981, the ground collapsed beneath Mae Rose Williams’ house and changed forever the life of Jim Jammal.
A geotechnical engineer with an office a block away, Jammal witnessed the Winter Park sinkhole consume Williams’ three-bedroom house, a recreation center’s swimming pool and a portion of a Porsche dealership.
Jammal knew something about the instability of solid ground. He graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Florida in 1961 and joined a firm the specialized in the relatively new field of geotechnical engineering, which helps builders understand what lies beneath the land they are developing.
But after the dramatic collapse of ground that swallowed whole Mae Rose’s house, Jammal was hired by the city of Winter Park to study the nature of sinkholes. He went on to become one of the leading authorities on sinkholes in the state of Florida.
“His specialty became sinkhole studies in Florida,” said his daughter, Leila Jammal Nodarse.
S.E. “Jim” Jammal, 75, died Sunday of leukemia.
In his career, Jammal would study more than 2,000 sinkholes. Jammal’s research changed the understanding of sinkholes, said his daughter, who is also a geotechnical engineer.
Sinkholes weren’t the product of something heavy causing the earth to collapse from above, but from something weakening the ground from below. It wasn’t simply heavy rains and erosion that caused sinkholes, but drought and water consumption that lowered the aquifer and increased the risk of sinkholes.
“People used to think it was only a downward phenomenon,” said Nodarse, 53, of Winter Park. “What he realized is there are zones in Central Florida that are geologically vulnerable to sinkholes due to the water level of the aquifer and their geology.”
Part of what made Jim Jammal different than other geotechnical engineers was his ability to picture what the data showed, his daughter said. Instead of columns of numbers and charts, he saw pictures — like his family’s photography business back in Beirut, Lebanon.
“My dad could visualize it almost like a portrait,” Nodarse said.
A handsome, dapper man who took pride in his appearance, Jammal prized a pair of well-polished dress shoes so much he wore few others. If he was working in the yard, he wore Bermuda shorts, a golf shirt and an old pair of crocodile loafers.
“He was the best-dressed weed picker,” she said.
Jammal, who immigrated to the United States in 1956, spent his later years serving as a mentor to younger engineers, instilling in them the lessons of his success: improve your writing, become proficient in public speaking, find your specialty, and always strive to become better.
“Don’t do it the way you did it before or the way other people do it. Add something more. Make it better than before,” his daughter said.
In the wisdom he passed on was his belief that in any profession you have three “I”s: Innovators who search for better answers; Imitators who do a good job of copying the innovators; and Idiots, who take you down the drain.
His advice: Don’t be an idiot.
In addition to Nodarse, Jim Jammal is survived by his wife, Sylvia Jammal, of Orlando; daughters, Samira Jammal, and Nicole Prada, both of Orlando; son, Suheil Jammal, of Orlando; brothers, Toufic Jammal, of Apopka, Emile Jammal, of Casselberry, Nabil Jammal, of Altamonte Springs; sister, Souhaila Miller, of Apopka; five grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews.