Michael Garfield did not know a thing about sinkholes when he moved to Florida from Boston a decade ago, but his knowledge of Earth’s depressions shifted in a hurry when he came to Oviedo.
Forced into foreclosure because of a sinkhole that affected his home, the street he was living on and two other houses in his gated community in Aloma Woods, Garfield now rents a house two blocks away and is readying for a remediation hearing in court.
“At one time, my neighbor’s yard was equal to mine when I looked out into the backyard,” said Garfield, who was advised by the head of the Health Department at Florida Hospital East to move out of his house at 2721 Bellewater Place because of the sinkhole and mold in the home. “Then, one season, I looked out the window and my yard was 2 feet higher than my neighbor’s.”
Garfield’s property was the victim of a sinkhole that he said was not the typical natural depression.
“Picture quicksand going up and down,” he said. “Well, this was like quicksand going north and south, and then south and north. We couldn’t keep a lawn in the backyard. The grass didn’t take root because the ground kept moving.”
Sinkholes can be earth-shaking news to many, as well as tough to discover. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection defines a sinkhole as a closed depression in an area underlain by soluble rock such as limestone, dolostone, gypsum or salt. These depressions, which have been known to swallow up entire homes, streets and other structures, can form gradually or suddenly, and are more prevalent in Florida than any other U.S. state.
Helping to keep the public informed about sinkholes is www.floodinsights.com, a desktop mapping sales and consulting company that recently added a sinkhole database to its software offerings. FloodInsights, a national provider of automated FEMA flood zone determinations to appraisers, homeowners, and mortgage and real estate professionals, has cataloged more than 15,000 sinkholes and reported subsidence events throughout the Sunshine State.
In Seminole County alone, there are 232 sinkholes in the FloodInsights database, said Hallie Benjamin, a business development specialist for FloodInsights, which is based in Boston and also has an office in Middletown, Conn.
“We only provide sinkhole data for Florida, currently,” Benjamin said. “Florida is the most affected state when it comes to the risk of sinkholes, and so our focus has been on providing this information to the population that could suffer the most from exposure to sinkhole risk.”
The sinkhole data from FloodInsights currently dwarfs information from DEP’s Florida Geological Survey, whose publicly available database consists of subsidence incidents, rather than just strictly sinkholes, said Catalina Quintana, public information specialist with the Florida DEP in Tallahassee.
“Commonly, a reported depression is not verified by a licensed professional geologist to be a true sinkhole, and the cause of subsidence is not known,” Quintana said. “The Florida Geological Survey maintains and provides a downloadable database of reported subsidence incidents statewide. While this data may include some true sinkholes, the majority of the incidents have not been field-checked and the cause of subsidence is not verified.”
Currently, FGS has more than 3,400 subsidence reports, with more than 120 in Seminole County. However, some of the reports are decades old. FGS is updated twice annually, Quintana said.
FloodInsights, in contrast, verifies its sinkholes and updates its database once per month, Benjamin said.
Most sinkholes in Seminole County are on the west side. However, two sites in Oviedo – Starwood Drive and Sanctuary Drive – were listed in the company’s reports.
The company is hoping its database will benefit Florida home buyers. Florida Realtors communications manager Marla Martin said sinkholes usually are not disclosed during a closing process, but “prior to that as a prospective buyer considers making an offer.”
Florida law does provide some protection to home buyers. Florida Statute 627.7072 outlines many of the legalities concerning testing, reporting and disclosure of sinkholes, and Statute 627.706 outlines insurance companies’ responsibility to provide insurance for catastrophic ground cover collapse.
The legal process wasn’t enough for Garfield, however. He said his insurance company canceled his sinkhole insurance after his claim. FloodInsights hopes to make inroads in providing resources to avoid this type of trouble.
“Although this information has been available in public records, it has been impossible to search,” FloodInsights founder Dan Munson said. “So we’ve really made the information easy to get. I think that anyone buying a house would want to check this prior to entering a sale.”
The sinkhole database from FloodInsights is available to the general public, with access pricing varying on sinkhole searches. Customers can sign up for a sinkhole search online.