Think sinkholes like the one that opened up under a Florida home — and swallowed a man into the Earth — and the one that ate half of a Pennsylvania woman’s driveway in her front yard are just freak accidents that could never happen to you? Think again. About 35 to 40 percent of the entire United States is susceptible to dangerous sinkholes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Particularly vulnerable, as you might guess, is Florida. But Pennsylvania has seen its fair share, too.
The two headline-grabbing sinkholes, one which tore apart a home just outside of Tampa, is a rare and extreme case. Jeff Bush died when he fell into the hole (pictured below) that opened up under his bedroom in Florida, and officials said that his body could not be recovered. The Bush family’s home was razed Tuesday after suffering too much damage to repair, CNN reported. “My mom and dad are going through hell right now,” Bush’s brother, Jeremy, told USA Today, adding that at least some family photos were able to be saved before demolition. In Bethlehem Township, Pa., Doris Jenkins and her family had to evacuate their home after a 20-foot sinkhole opened up in their front yard.
Anyone who lives in Florida should take this as a cautionary tale: Virtually the entire state — but particularly Central Florida — is prone to sinkholes as potentially dangerous as the one that took Jeff Bush’s life. (Just last year, a Florida woman came home to find that half her house had fallen into a sinkhole.) Sinkholes form when rainwater dissolves limestone, salt, gypsum and similar types of bedrock under the soil. Florida’s bedrock is mostly limestone, making it a prime area of the country for sinkholes.
But if you live in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Kentucky, Texas, Tennessee or anywhere in the Northern Plains, you’re at risk from sinkholes, too. All of those areas lie on top of the types of bedrock that sinkholes affect. But not all sinkholes are quite as dramatic as the ones in Florida and Pennsylvania. Some are hardly noticeable, causing the ground to sag only slightly. And it doesn’t have to swallow you to be life-threatening: In 2011, a young girl died in a car crash after a sinkhole destroyed part of a Utah road.
So is there any way to protect yourself against the possibility of sinkhole damage to your home? 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.
Homeowners in other states, though, may not know that sinkhole insurance even exists — and that they must ask for it to get it. In many states, coverage against sinkholes requires a separate policy. When homes were damaged recently in an area of Pennsylvania that’s prone to sinkholes, The Morning Call newspaper reported that homeowners there were surprised to find that their insurance wouldn’t cover them. As a result, as least one state senator was pushing to have local insurers inform policy holders that sinkhole coverage was available. The best thing any homeowner can do, though, is ask an insurer about a sinkhole coverage policy.