By now, most people have heard about the Tampa, Fla., man who was swallowed into the abyss of a huge sinkhole that opened up underneath his bed. Despite this tragic occurrence, it’s likely most of us non-Floridians easily dismissed this as a freak occurrence.
But since then, reports of additional sinkholes have been surfacing in the news – in Washington, D.C., Holyyoke, Mass., Allentown, Penn., Bethlehem, Penn., and then in the suburban Philadelphia borough of Rockledge, Pa. Then just as the march madness of sinkholes season started to die down, a sinkhole no bigger than a manhole opened up on the 14th hole of a golf course in Waterloo, Ill. swallowing up a 43-year-old golfer as he tried to play through.
Despite the concerns about this incredible phenomenon, the truth of the matter is that sinkholes are very common outside of Florida, and other U.S. hotspots for sinkholes include Kentucky, as well as Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Around 20 percent of the United States lies in areas susceptible to sinkholes.
Much of Kentucky’s beautiful scenery, including several well-known horse farms, is the result of developing Karst landscape – landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rock such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum and characterized by sinkholes, caves and underground drainage systems.
In fact, most of Kentucky’s larger to midsize cities are all located in known Karst areas, as this is where early settlers gravitated to because of natural, pooling, spring-fed watering holes, (aka, sinkholes). It’s because of this water flow through these limestone areas that the bourbon and horse industry settled and thrived here.
According to an article in Geotimes, 55 percent of the state of Kentucky sits atop carbonate rocks that are prone to developing karst, which causes sinkholes if given enough time. A USGS map shows areas of the contiguous United States that are underlain by relatively soluble rocks with potential for cave and natural sinkhole formation Click here. And, below, is a map from the University of Kentucky Geological Survey specific to Kentucky.
Geologically, a sinkhole is a depression in the ground that has no natural external surface drainage. When it rains, all of the water stays inside the sinkhole and typically drains into the subsurface. Sinkholes form when slightly acidic groundwater dissolves limestone or similar rock that lies beneath the soil, creating a large void or cavities. When the overlying ceiling can no longer support the weight of the soil and whatever is on top of it, the earth collapses into the cavity. Certain events such as a hurricane or heavy rains following a period of drought will usually trigger a series of sinkholes to occur.
Sinkholes can also form from manmade activity such as mining, leaky faucets, poor drainage, construction and sewer failure. Think about all the changes that occur when water-drainage patterns are altered and new patterns are developed in and around your neighborhood.
Now as a homeowner or business owner, the first question you have right about now is, does my property sit above a sinkhole, and if so will my homeowners insurance cover it if you sink into the abyss?
The answer to the first part of that question is that, unfortunately, there isn’t a very efficient system to determine this quite yet. Homeowners should, however, observe their property for holes, fissures or sunken areas in your yard, cracks forming in a structure’s foundation or windows and doors that are hard to shut. You can also check with county offices, local or state geological surveys, or the USGS to determine if you live in areas underlained by soluble rock.
The only certain way to avoid such an economic loss is to avoid building on karst, but the demands of economic growth are applying irresistible pressure to develop the karst lands of Kentucky and throughout the country. Unfortunately, only a few cities and counties have zoning regulations governing construction in karst terrain.
One major incident that may still be fresh on some minds here in Kentucky was the 200-foot-wide and 35-foot-deep sinkhole that collapsed in the Bowling Green area due to water runoff underneath the soil. This happened to occur on the proposed Kentucky Trimodal Transpark commercial/industrial park that was a combination of a highway, railroad and a future proposed airport. Plans for the industrial park were quickly abandoned.
Unfortunately this mammoth cave region is dotted with naturally occurring and numerous underground sinkholes that could open at any time, making development very risky in the entire area.
As a homeowner you have to worry about hurricanes, floods, tornados, earthquakes, firestorms and mudslides, and the way the news has been here lately, you can add sinkholes to your concerns. In Florida and Tennessee — the most active states for sinkholes — insurers are required to offer sinkhole coverage with home policies, reports the Christian Science Monitor. But although sinkhole insurance will cover the same things as a typical homeowners insurance policy — when it comes to damage — many homeowners have opted out as premiums have skyrocketed. Rate hikes of more than 2,000 percent were proposed in some parts of Tampa Bay in 2011, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Unfortunately when homes are damaged by a sinkhole, homeowners are later surprised to find that their homeowners insurance wouldn’t cover those costly damages. Such was the case for one homeowner in Louisville in August of 2012, when he later learned that his $140,000 home was a total loss after his insurance company sent out a geologist to survey his property. To his surprise, he learned that his house sat directly on top of a sinkhole. After part of his garage started to sink, the house was deemed un-repairable and uninsurable, according to news reports.
Most homeowners may not know that sinkhole insurance even exists — so they must ask for it to get it, and usually it isn’t even offered by many insurance carriers outside of Florida and Tennessee. Therefore, coverage against sinkholes require a separate policy as an endorsement, and to find it you should contact your trusty insurance agent.
As for me, who happens to live in the Beaumont neighborhood in Lexington, where we have a recently covered cave from a sinkhole kavas with a 20-foot cavern that stretches through the neighborhood, I must admit that I am a little bit more concerned after researching this article. But still not enough to move away from the comforts of the Bluegrass, as I enjoy the safe distance away from all the other CAT-loss prone areas where hurricanes, forest fires, mudslides and earthquake are known to occur.
Be safe, my friends.