Florida Gets Federal Grant to Study Sinkhole Activity

The Florida Geological Survey and the state’s emergency department are receiving a $1.08 million federal grant to study sinkhole vulnerability, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has announced. 

The grant, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Florida Division of Emergency Management, finances a three-year project that will generate a map modeling potential sinkhole activity in Florida’s counties. Hamilton, Columbia and Suwannee counties will be studied during the launch year, with the survey expanding statewide over the following two years. 

“Ultimately, this assessment will aid planners, builders and environmental regulators for the betterment of human health and safety as well as the economy,” says Jon Arthur, director of the Florida Geological Survey. 

The DEP posted the announcement a day before a three-story resort building collapsed in Clermont, near Disney World, after a sinkhole appeared on the property grounds on August 8.

The Office of Insurance Regulation (OIR) reports that insurance claims for sinkhole damage have tripled in recent years, increasing from 2,360 claims in 2006 to 6,694 in 2010. In 2011, the state’s insurer of last resort, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., collected about $51 million in sinkhole-related premiums, but paid out more than $136 million in related claims, sucking up capital needed to pay for other natural catastrophes such as hurricanes. 

Damage from sinkholes resulting in a building collapse is usually covered under Ground Cover Collapse policies. Every property insurer in the state must provide this coverage, states law firm Marshall Thomas Burnett. The requirement doesn’t extend to other sinkhole damage, however. Thus, if a home experienced foundation cracks due to sinkhole activity but is still safe for living, it may not be eligible for payout without added Sinkhole coverage.  

“The collapse that took place in Clermont won’t likely be covered under a Sinkhole, but Catastrophic Ground Loss, policy,” says Michael Peltier, spokesman for Citizens, which did not insure the damaged building. “When something falls into the earth, and is swallowed by it, it is considered Catastrophic Ground Loss in both basic residential and commercial coverage. For Citizens, Sinkhole would be an optional coverage for cracked plaster and settled foundations determined to be caused by sinkhole activity.” 

According to the DEP, heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Debby in 2012 triggered a mass formation of sinkholes. The storm broke out in June following a prolonged drought in Florida, and the sudden influx of rainwater caused dried-out underground voids to collapse.

In March 2013, a sinkhole opened in the Tampa area, swallowing the bedroom of a home and a 37-year-old man within it. His body was never recovered.

In 1981, a 320-foot-wide and 90-foot-deep sinkhole swallowed a two-story house, part of a car dealership and an Olympic-sized swimming pool near Orlando. The site is now an artificial lake.

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