Will a Sinkhole Swallow Your Home?

Giant Sinkhole
A giant sinkhole in Windermere, Florida, forced the evacuation of the home next to it in May 2012.
I don't spend much time worrying that tornadoes, earthquakes or other acts of God will destroy my northern Virginia home. But, sinkholes freak me out. In May, a block-long sinkhole swallowed parts of a Baltimore neighborhood less than an hour's drive from mine. And a 12-foot-deep hole collapsed two backyards and threatened homes in Stafford, Virginia, about 50 miles south of mine.

Sinkholes routinely swallow parts of Florida, the sinkhole capital of the U.S. And a 37-acre sinkhole in Assumption Parrish, Louisiana, opened two years ago and continues to devour land as I write.

So, I'm not insane for worrying that a sinkhole has my name on it, even though I don't live in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Pennsylvania -- places that see the most damage from sinkholes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Signs of a Sinkhole

A sinkhole is a depression where rainwater pools and seeps through the soil, dissolving rock and creating spaces and caverns underground. The land can stay intact forever. Or, one day the spaces grow too big, and the earth gives way.

Most sinkholes don't open up over night; it's mostly a gradual process.

Here are warning signs that your home is sinking.

· Stair step-shaped cracks appear in your home's exterior and/or foundation.
· Cracks widen in interior walls, ceilings, floors and around door and window frames.
· Doors and windows are difficult to close without scraping frames or the floor.
· Trees and fence posts slump for no obvious reason.
· Circles of plants wilt because that can't get enough water, which drains into holes beneath the surface.
· Rainwater pools in areas that once drained well.
· A sunken area around your foundation, or an actual cavity, appears.
· Water bills suddenly climb because a sinkhole is damaging your plumbing.

What You Should Do

I'd run screaming down the street. But you should follow these tips.

1. If a sinkhole threatens your house, get out immediately, and call your local emergency management organization, then your insurance company.

2. If you suspect a sinkhole is beginning, call your insurance company, which will send an adjuster to determine if the hole or depression needs further investigation. If it does, your adjuster will send a professional engineering company to your property to begin testing.

3. If a small hole opens, rope off the area to keep curiosity seekers away, and then call your insurance company and your local emergency management organization. If it's only 1 to 3 feet in diameter and depth, you may be able to fill it in with concrete and sand.


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