DUNEDIN — In the predawn hours Thursday, 13-year-old Ivy Dupre awoke to what she thought was an intruder trying to break in the back of her family’s house, and she rushed into her parents’ bedroom to tell them.
Her father, Michael, doubted her. If there were a burglar, the family’s Labrador would have barked, he said. He thought it was just the wind.
Then he heard a crack.
“I thought that was weird because it was inside the house,” he said.
Michael grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun and headed toward the back porch of his home at 1112 Robmar Road, while his wife Jannie and daughter huddled in the master bedroom.
The “intruder” was neither a burglar, nor the wind.
It was a sinkhole.
From that moment at 5:40 a.m., when Michael Dupre noticed the screened-in room at the back of his house “bent at an angle going downward,” the opening continued growing throughout the day.
By day’s end, the hole was 90 feet in diameter, 56 feet deep and spanned two properties.
Some things were saved.
The operator of a small front-end loader was able to pull out a 14-foot boat that had fallen into the hole behind the Dupre household, and a firefighter was able to grab Michael’s wedding ring, which he had left on a windowsill in a Florida room next to that screened-in room.
By early afternoon, though, the hole had swallowed parts of the Dupre home, along with the house next door, at 1100 Robmar Road, where an in-ground swimming pool was also engulfed. Though no one was injured, both houses will have to be torn down, said Jeff Parks, the chief of the Dunedin Fire Department.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” said Dupre, the transportation coordinator for the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater. His wife manages the shelter there.
Authorities evacuated seven homes — the two damaged, two others on Robmar Road and three on Mary Jane Lane, one block over. Residents won’t be able to return until at least until today, Parks said.
The Dupre family has been engaged in a monthslong court battle with its insurance company, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., after a sinkhole was discovered on the property two years ago, said the family’s attorney, Jason Salgado.
Neighbors said Robmar Road — which is in a middle-class neighborhood lined with ranch-style single-family homes near Dunedin High School and just north of downtown — has had problems with sinkholes. But people choose to move in, or remain, anyway.
Dave Dennis, a 67-year-old retiree, and his wife purchased a house at 1170 Robmar Road in 2011. He knew there was a sinkhole there and that work had been done to deal with it, and he still bought it.
“It’s a chance you take,” he said.
Three counties in the Tampa Bay area are known as “sinkhole alley.” Two-thirds of the sinkhole damage claims reported to the state Office of Insurance Regulation between 2006 and 2010 came from Hernando, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. Dunedin is in neighboring Pinellas County and has a history of sinkhole problems.
Sinkholes are common in Florida because the peninsula is made up of porous carbonate rocks such as limestone that store and help move water underground. Over time, the rocks can dissolve from an acid created from oxygen in water, creating a void under the limestone roof. When dirt, clay or sand gets too heavy for the limestone roof, it can collapse, creating a sinkhole.
On Feb. 28, Jeffrey Bush died when a sinkhole opened under his bedroom in Seffner. His body was never recovered. In August, sections of a building at a resort near Orlando collapsed into a sinkhole but no one was injured.
Once a sink hole was discovered at the Dupre property, Citizens suggested a repair plan costing roughly $90,000 to $110,000.
Engineers contracting with Citizens called for what is called deep-compaction grouting, where a cement-like concoction is pumped at high pressure into the soil, typically 40 to 70 feet deep. The intent is to seal off breaks in the limerock.
The Dupres were not happy with that plan, though. They had their own assessment done and hired Salgado.
The engineering firm the family hired came up with a plan that would cost $231,000, Salgado said.
In addition to the deep-compaction grouting, there would be additional so-called shallow grouting at depths of as much as 15 feet. And there was also talk of possibly putting pilings underneath the house’s slab as further support, Salgado said.
Citizens and the Dupres disagreed on which plan was best, and the Dupres filed a lawsuit in May 2012 that is still pending.
With the lawsuit still winding through the judicial system, the Dupres decided to go ahead with the Citizens deep-compaction grouting plan. Work began two days ago.
Salgado wouldn’t speculate as to whether the judicial delays or the repair work caused the sinkhole that opened Thursday morning.
Michael Peltier, a spokesman for Citizens, said sinkholes sometimes open up as work commences.
“It’s not uncommon that when you start to do remediation work, there is ground settling that takes place, but not usually as dramatic as what you saw today,” Peltier said.
He characterized the court battle as a difference of opinion. Since 2011, Citizens has been required by law to simply hire a qualified engineer to assess a problem and come up with a plan for repairs and then put the plan into effect.
That’s what was done with the Dupre property, he said.
“We don’t want to get into the position of second-guessing people who are licensed and qualified engineers,” he said. “The qualified engineers can differ in their assessment of what needs to be done.”
Citizens has been insuring the home at 1100 Robmar Road, the other house that needs to be destroyed, Peltier said.
As part of a special program, Citizens is trying to wean off some of its customers by having them establish relationships with private companies.
The property owner agreed to do so as of Nov. 5, Peltier said. But she had 30 days to change her mind and return to Citizens.
On Thursday, she told Citizens she wanted to stay, Peltier said.