Special Report: Sinkhole Shock

by Michael Mosher on June 27, 2013

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It is a rare event, but it happens. The earth swallows a home, and in a worse case scenario, takes a life. That’s what happened to a man in south Florida.

Richard Moultrie of Union Springs is concerned the same thing could happen to his mom. We found Moultrie shoveling up more dirt to fill-up 4 sinkholes underneath his mom’s back deck.

“I’m mystified and upset about it. I don’t know if I’m gonna wake up one morning and the whole back deck will be gone,” Moultrie admitted.

What’s gone, and apparently for good, is Richard’s lawnmower. It disappeared 60 feet below.

“The whole lawnmower is gone, vanished,” he explained.

J.P. Pouncey points to what appears to be a sinkhole in the making behind the apartment complex she manages in Prattville.

“If I don’t find a way to stop it we could slide down that hill,” Pouncey said.

Sinkholes are not unusual in Alabama and they come in all sizes. Most of the them occur in north and south Alabama, not so much in the central part of the state. There’s a reason for that.

Dr. Terry Winemiller is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Geography at Auburn University of Montgomery.

“First of all, it’s related to the underlying geology. The issue is limestone underlying the soil,” Dr. Winemiller explains.

Limestone is porous like Swiss cheese. Mix in a severe drought or a lot of rain and you’ll have the perfect the ingredients for a collapse.

“As rainwater falls through the atmosphere it picks up carbon dioxide and forms carbon acid. Those water sources drain through fractures and fissures through the soil and slowly erodes the stones,” said Dr. Winemiller.

Winemiller has a digitized map of sinkholes in Alabama in his research lab. The map shows 6,000 documented sinkholes in the state.

The biggest one so far in Alabama can be found a little more than two miles from downtown Calera in Shelby County. Take a stroll down a trail and off to the right you’ll see it. It happened in 1972. It is still massive and unforgettable.

“It’s nothing you ever forget,” said Calera resident Hilton Shirey.

Shirey, now the city’s fire marshal, found the hole spooky even when he was a teenager. 

“The magnitude, the size and the depth,” Shirey still marvels after all these years.

When the sinkhole occurred near Calera it measured 300 feet across and 120 feet deep. Today, the hole is still very much there but overgrown with tall pine trees.

“You definitely couldn’t throw a rock across it. It was that big,” Shirey remembered.

While the Calera hole occurred in the woods, sometimes, in Moultrie’s case, the ground can give way in your own backyard.

The Department of Insurance in Alabama says the insurance industry does not typically insure sinkhole damage. “That’s because they are difficult to predict where they are,” said Charles Angell, Deputy Insurance Commissioner.

You can, however, add the coverage on to your homeowner’s insurance for an extra charge. Most carriers in the state offer additional coverage upon request.

“On a $200,000 home you can expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $70 a year more,” said Angell.

Local governments don’t get involved in fixing sinkholes if they’re on private property. The responsibility falls to the homeowner.

While J.P. Pouncey keeps a wary eye on the small depression in the ground, Richard Moultrie is beginning to wonder if his corner of the world will ever stop sinking. He plans to keep his mound of dirt nearby.

“I am losing sleep because I am constantly worried about it,” he said, worried his mom’s house could be next.

Experts say one of the best ways to protect yourself before you buy a home is to look for cracks in the walls, check the foundation and even contact your city engineer to see if sinkholes are prevalent in the neighborhood.

Full article…here

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