The grant, financed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency along with the state’s division of emergency management, will try to generate a map defining areas across the state that are more vulnerable to potential sinkhole activity.
Sinkholes result from a collapse of overlying sediments caused by erosional processes, according to the Florida Geological Survey.
The 3-year research will start in an area located in Suwannee, Hamilton and Columbia Counties and expand after the first year to the rest of the state, said Harley Means, assistant state geologist at the Florida Geological Survey.
The project is currently in a hiring and planning stage and is expected to have a model built in the next 15 months, Means said.
He said the project will become a tool for Floridians to be aware of where sinkholes are more likely to occur.
“Even if you live in an area, based on the maps that we ultimately generate, that says you are in high vulnerability area, that never means that you are definitely going to experience one,” Means said.
Sinkholes can occur any time of the year, but are more likely to occur during heavy rainfall seasons after drought periods, he said. Under those circumstances, chemical components in the ground such as limestone become less capable to support the weight of the soil.
What was the grant’s genesis?
Tropical Storm Debby led to cracks, crumbling and outright destruction of homes and buildings in multiple Florida cities in 2012, Means said.
“The counties that are seeing more reports of sinkholes are the ones with higher population,” he said. “That means more and more people are moving into areas where sinkholes are occurring.”
And sinkhole damage is common throughout the entire state.
In recent weeks, minor non-threating sinkholes were reported northwest of Gainesville, said Chris Bird, Alachua County environmental protection director.
Between 2008 and 2012, Citizens Property Insurance Corporation reported $1.2 billion in losses related to Florida sinkholes, according to Michael Peltier, the company’s media relations manager.
The insurance company reported about 80 percent of its sinkhole damage claims in Tampa Bay counties, especially Hernando, Hillsborough and Pasco.
Major sinkhole damage, like when a house collapses into the earth, is protected under the basic home and commercial insurance coverage for catastrophic ground loss.
Peltier said an average of 31 percent of insurance holders statewide choose to pay for additional coverage in other sinkhole-related injuries like foundations and wall cracks.
How often sinkholes occur in some areas reflect how much residents pay for insurance, Peltier said. For the same coverage, someone in Alachua County would pay $60 a year, whereas another person in Hernando would pay $1,723 a year.
Peltier said the project will provide a comparative map, which could be used to match up the insurance company’s data and show which areas will be most affected.
Michal Brower, State Farm’s Florida spokeswoman, said the study could be used for backup information. The company’s claims and records are what ultimately define the rates people pay, she said.
Correction appended: The headline on a previous version of this story said the grant was $1.8 million. It is $1.08 million.