EIt sounded like popcorn exploding, said an eyewitness later, who survived a hotel collapse in Florida. It started late in the evening last Sunday. A window shattered in the three-story building near Orlando.
Minutes later the next window pane clattered in a thousand pieces, the banister collapsed, doors could no longer be opened. The night porter hectically woke all 105 guests. Just in time, because after the building was evacuated, it began to sink into the ground. A cesspool with a diameter of 30 meters devoured around a third of the hotel complex.
The case in Clermont near Orlando made national headlines in the United States in recent days. It rarely happens that an entire house disappears into the ground. Suddenly appearing cesspools are part of everyday life in Florida.
Because of the special geological conditions of the southern state, not a day goes by in Florida without the earth somewhere. Millions of dollars in damage are incurred year after year.
Living on “Sinkhole Alley”
The Tampa area has been particularly hard hit. That is why people call the strip of land “Sinkhole Alley”, based on the “Tornado Alley” in the American Midwest, through which the cyclones sweep every summer.
A highly profitable industry has developed from the cesspool plague. The niche occupation of the “sinkhole remediator” is in high demand in Florida. “In the past five years, the demand for our service has exploded,” says Jim Flynn.
The manager works for LRE Ground Service Repair, the market leader in the removal of cesspools in Florida. In recent years the company has more than doubled its workforce to 130 employees. “Our teams go out on a new case almost every day,” says Flynn. LRE fills around 300 holes in the ground every year.
The number of incidents has tripled
If you look at the number of cesspools reported to insurance companies in Florida, the increase is dramatic. While 2360 such insurance claims were registered in 2006, in 2010 it was almost three times as many with 6694. More recent data are not available.
Some of the claims are likely to be insurance fraud, says Flynn. In the past, insurance companies often simply paid out money, and customers could then decide for themselves whether to have the hole filled, if there was one at all.
“Because fraud has increased over the past few years, the government increased the legal requirement to provide evidence of this type of damage in 2011,” says Flynn. Nevertheless, the demand at LRE is unbroken.
The main reason for the enormous number of cesspools in Florida is the special nature of the soil. Florida sits on limestone in much of the state. This is both porous and brittle.
“So if, for example, heavy rain makes a hole in the limestone, a crater forms over it,” says Flynn. Like the sand in an hourglass, everything on the surface is sucked into the abyss.
But it is also human errors that cause the holes in the ground. “A few years ago we had a case where a man buried tree trunks under his building site,” says Flynn. When the wood in the floor rotted, the floor over it gave way and cracked the house.
Groundwater fell 20 meters
In another case three years ago, farmers in Plant City had pumped water out of the ground to save the strawberry harvest. In doing so, they lowered the water table by 20 meters. “As a result, around 80 cesspools opened in the area.”
One reason for the increased number of claims is the building boom before the financial crisis. “The Tampa area was barely running out of vacant lots,” says Flynn. So people should have built in areas known for their cesspool bottom. “If a hole opens in a field, it doesn’t bother anyone.” If there is a house above it, however, it can be expensive.
“Our average bill is $ 65,000 per hole.” LRE would have received up to $ 300,000 for an order. In most cases, the company’s job is to fill the hole with concrete and give the nearby houses a better foundation.
Get help early
The cesspools are often noticeable at an early stage through cracks around buildings, cracked windows and warped door frames. “We advise people to get help as early as possible.”
Only in one percent of cases does an earth crater open so quickly that there is no more time for preventive measures. That was also the case at the hotel in Clermont last weekend.
Thank goodness people are rarely hurt, says Flynn. However, a tragic accident occurred on February 28 of this year in the small town of Seffner, 25 kilometers east of Tampa. In the middle of the night a cesspool opened under Jeffrey Bush’s house. The 36-year-old was torn down along with his bed. His body was never found.