One sinkhole killed, but there's no need to panic, experts say

Michael Wines / New York Times News Service /

The recent bizarre death of a man who vanished into a huge sinkhole that opened beneath his home in suburban Tampa, Fla., unleashed a wave of sympathy, and not a little fear, among fellow Floridians. This is the “sinkhole season” in Florida, a time when homes, cars and — rarely — people can drop into the abyss without warning.

But for fans of sinkholes, of which there are more than one might think, this is a very good time, indeed.

Since the Florida tragedy, word has spread of another Tampa sinkhole and sinkholes in Allentown, Bethlehem and the suburban Philadelphia borough of Rockledge, Pa. The hole in Rockledge swallowed a creek and drained a duck pond (“Boom! It was gone overnight,” the town’s grounds manager was quoted as saying). There was a nine-acre sinkhole in Assumption Parish, La., that drew a visit from the environmental activist Erin Brockovich.

The University of Delaware’s student newspaper, The Review, seized on the media frenzy to deliver comforting news: No sinkholes are likely in Delaware. (“Geologists unconcerned,” the headline read.)

Just as sinkhole madness was starting to die down, a sinkhole no bigger than a Hula Hoop opened up March 9 on the 14th hole at the Annbriar Golf Course in Waterloo, Ill., swallowing Mark Mihal, a 43-year-old mortgage broker. He was hauled out with what was initially reported to be a dislocated shoulder. But on Wednesday his friend and business partner, C.A. Schmidt, disclosed on Facebook that Mihal’s shoulder actually had been broken in two places.

“He’s pretty bummed — no golf the rest of the year for him,” Schmidt wrote in an email exchange.

There followed a sinkhole on Tuesday in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, and a 17-foot-deep sinkhole discovered Wednesday morning in Holyoke, Mass.

According to geologists, sinkholes have opened up on a daily basis for as long as anyone can remember. But nobody paid them much heed until now.

“I don’t believe we’re having any more today than we’ve had before,” Randall Orndorff, director of the Geology and Paleoclimate Science Center at the U.S. Geological Survey, said in an interview. “They happen all the time.”