Last week’s catastrophic sinkhole in Seffner should serve as a wake-up call for central Floridians.
The Seffner sinkhole claimed a life, a rarity in sinkholes. The only other sinkhole-related death in this area that we recall — relying on an admittedly imperfect memory — occurred many years ago when a motorist driving on an unlighted road drove into one.
The primary cause for concern from sinkholes is not loss of life, but loss of a home. And that is a loss that many central Florida residents — notably including persons living in Bartow and Lake Wales — have experienced.
In the wake of the Seffner sinkhole, which swallowed up a bedroom and killed a person sleeping in that room, we researched Florida law and talked to an insurance agent.
Briefly, Florida law requires insurance companies to cover “catastrophic ground cover collapse,” but that is not synonymous with sinkholes.
To meet the definition of “catastrophic,” a house must be “condemned as uninhabitable.”
But as those of us who live in sinkhole-prone areas are well aware, sinkholes can cause damage — let alone sleepless nights — without the “catastrophic collapse” for which coverage is mandated.
One majestic two-story Bartow home (“mansion” would not be an overstatement) was actually moved a few feet many years ago to avoid the danger of extensive damage from a sinkhole in the yard.
Small depressions or subsurface voids have been filled beneath other homes to prevent development of greater problems.
Typical warning signs are unexplained cracks in walls or foundations. Modern subsurface testing devices are now available to determine if the cause is a potential sinkhole.
Insurance companies are required by Florida law to offer sinkhole coverage for an additional premium for these non-catastrophic perils, and we suggest that for homeowners in our readership area, it’s worth exploring.
While we generally prefer to let private enterprise regulate itself, this is an area that the Legislature might need to revisit.
Sinkhole coverage, regardless of the extent of damage, used to be mandated by law for all policy holders, but a change in Florida Statute 627 established a differentiation between “catastrophic” damage and the worrisome damage that results from smaller sinkholes.
If your house is damaged (but not destroyed) by fire or windstorm, insurance pays to fix it. We fail to see the difference when damage caused by a sinkhole can be repaired.
For the insurance industry, exposure to sinkholes represents a far smaller risk than fires and hurricanes.
But to the homeowner, the perils can be equally devastating.