Emergency personnel stand by a giant sinkhole that opened up inside the Woodhill Apartment complex, forcing dozens of residents to evacuate their apartments.
MAITLAND — Before leaving their homes Thursday, Ron Goff and his colleagues at North American Risk Services called a special phone number to make sure it was safe to go to work. Despite the company’s name, Goff wasn’t going to chance losing his car to a sinkhole.
Their cause of concern developed Wednesday when two sinkholes opened at Maitland Center Commons — one in a parking lot off Maitland Center Parkway and a larger one near the front parking lot of North American Risk Services on Westhall Lane. A third hole, in another corner of Maitland Center, may be developing.
While geologists say there is no such thing as a sinkhole season, this time of year seems to suggest otherwise.
Last year at this time, Maitland was plagued by a rash of sinkholes, including a few at the same office park.
And it was 21 years ago Thursday when what many consider the largest sinkhole to hit Central Florida swallowed a chunk of Winter Park.
Orange County, of course, isn’t alone. A sinkhole in south Lake County that opened Wednesday is expected to keep County Road 561 closed for at least three days.
Sinkholes are a fact of life in Florida because of the porous and sometimes crumbly layers of rock beneath the ground, said Frank Rupert, a geologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Geological Survey division.
Sinkholes typically flourish following either very wet or very dry stretches of weather. The slightly acidic rain that falls in the region can dissolve sediment beneath below-ground rock layers. That creates pockets which can grow, fueled either by more rainfall or by a dry snap, Rupert said.
Dry snaps tend to cause a drop in water levels in the Floridan Aquifer, which normally helps support the layers of earth above, he said. But when the aquifer drops, there is no more water holding up the ground above. Without that support from beneath, you have the ingredients for a fallen terrestrial souffle.
None of the latest sinkholes pose any serious risk, according to the Maitland Police Department.
“People are getting kind of used to it,” said Maitland Police Officer Greg Fox, as he inspected what could become the third sinkhole, which was little more than a dip in one corner of a parking lot on Maitland Center Parkway.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes worry.
“This one wouldn’t be a big deal, but there are the others,” said Goff, his arm sweeping across the leafy vista of his office park. Smoking a cigarette during a morning break, Goff was surrounded by coworkers leaning over yellow caution tape strung around their slowly growing sinkhole — more than 50 feet wide and 10 feet deep, the larger of Maitland Center’s sinkholes. The other one is evidenced not by a hole in the earth but by a crack in the pavement and a slight indentation in the asphalt.
“Our building is four stories and holding,” said Rebecca Gaskin, 27, a receptionist at North American Risk Services. “If you drive by next week and it’s only three stories, uh-oh.”
Across the street from Goff’s and Gaskin’s insurance office, workers patched a stretch of roadway where another sinkhole was recently filled with 150 cubic yards of grout.
CAPABLE OF SEVERE DAMAGE
That is mild sinkhole activity, compared with what they are capable of.
Sinkholes have sucked lakes dry. Lake McCoy in Apopka turned into a soggy grass field two years ago when a thirsty sinkhole opened on the lakeshore. They have eaten chunks of cities. The huge 1981 Winter Park sinkhole swallowed a city swimming pool, part of a house and a number of luxury cars.
Sinkholes’ destructive power can also turn a flat field into a lake. About half of the state’s roughly 7,800 lakes were created by sinkholes that cratered the Earth and were subsequently filled with rainwater, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
DETAILED IN OLD PAPER
So sensational are sinkholes that one particularly massive 19th century brute prompted the headline “A Whole County Sinks in Florida.” The Winsted (Pa.) Herald story from 1871 told the harrowing account of a horseman’s journey from Orlando to Mellonville — now Sanford. Somewhere near the current boundary between Winter Park and Maitland, the horseman turned in his saddle and saw the earth split open.
“Then the whole Earth, as far as the eye could see, was seen sinking, and its place supplied by a sea of waters, rushing, seething, boiling with the noise of a mighty cataract,” the article reads.
Nightmarish as sinkholes can be, Goff is able to milk some entertainment out of Central Florida’s geology.
“This is fun,” he said, gazing from the sinkhole to the parking lot alongside it. “I want to watch it go down.”