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A Total Freefall: Gainesville Sinkhole Showcases Cracks In Geology And Government Systems Alike

Erin Robasciotti needed to get everything out.

Get your crap, get out, she thought, what can’t be replaced? Pieces of art. Family photos. She had already lost them once before to Hurricane Katrina. She wouldn’t lose them again. Not when she was in the beginning stages of growing a family of her own.

Minutes before, Gainesville Fire Rescue told her she needed to evacuate. In her backyard, a portal to hell had burst open.

From her front yard, Robasciotti heard huge chunks of dirt crack off and plummet down the sloughed sides of the sinkhole, like dead bodies crashing into the water.

She had known about sinkholes before ever moving to Florida. She knew they opened up on golf courses and parking lots. They gobbled up fields of green and consumed SUVs in all their wrath and fury.

Her partner, Troy Perlman, calmed her. He had lived in Gainesville for more than a decade, and his only experience with sinkholes involved visits to the Devil’s Millhopper. He assured her she would be safe settling here.

So in 2017, they began their life together in Westwood Estates. In December they welcomed home their newborn — Moe. He and Olive, Robasciotti’s daughter, would swing and slide on the playground set in their backyard. When the pandemic erupted last spring, the family spent their hours at home painting a geometric mural on one of their walls. They planned to stay for many more years.

But Mother Nature uprooted those plans.

Below ground, water coursed through porous limestone and, over time, sliced it into karst — a topographical equivalent to swiss cheese. Around Oct. 15, the earth above buckled. A sinkhole widened over 100 feet, slowly spreading across four properties each day for more than two months. It sucked in clay, concrete and contaminants, sending whatever it could swallow straight to the Florida aquifer. Ground and stormwater have collected in the pit, and now, an eerie reservoir reflects the sky while sneakily concealing its own contents.

An in-ground concrete swimming pool toppled over the brim, and water filled the bowl. On Halloween, the pool sank out of sight and into the abyss. Later, an eight-story pine tree tipped into the surface. Its roots struggled to cling onto the side before the tree disappeared forever.

So far, three houses have been condemned and torn down by the city. More could meet the same fate.

Robasciotti’s family fled. Their former home sits vacant and threatened by the hellscape a few feet away. Others still live with uncertainty each day — wondering how long the sinkhole will deface their property and jeopardize their safety.

Municipal government is in the dark with no state agency to offer assistance. Firefighters and geologists stand by in wait until the site stabilizes.

Meanwhile, the murky water gurgles, entrancing neighbors to their local natural disaster.

The call of the void

The crater in Westwood Estates has become a spectator sport of sorts.

Deputy Fire Chief JoAnne Rice heard reports of people dangling their toes above the tantalizing water and parents nearing the brink with children on their shoulders. Gainesville Fire Rescue set up ropes for rescue operations, and the Gainesville Police Department decided to put up a chain-link fence. Now, neighbors take walks around the perimeter, binoculars hanging from their necks. “Birdwatching,” they say. Families bring their cameras and snap photos. Drones fly overhead on any given day.

People can’t help the urge to peek. This is a part of their city that’s sinking. It could have just as easily been their backyard.

Some do more than look. Neighbors reported seeing one man urinate on the side of the sinkhole in broad daylight. The rest of the trespassers usually arrive at night, sometimes intoxicated, and climb the fence.

They’re all lucky to be alive, said Jim Olson, a local geology expert.

Olson works for GeoHazards, a geological engineering firm in Gainesville. He’s stood near the gaping mouths of sinkholes, still and silent, only to watch entire sides of earth slip off without a moment's notice — just a few feet between him and a watery death. He’s taken part in more than 1,000 sinkhole inspections statewide in his 13 years of work.

He has never seen anything like this.

Within 8 feet from the edge, even the lightest pressure could cause it to crumble. But by the time a fire truck could arrive to help, it would likely be too late.

As quickly as it changed everything, the hole didn’t just open up overnight. The dissolution of limestone is a lengthy process; thousands of years of erosion took place behind the scenes. Because Gainesville soil is clay-heavy, Olson said a cover-collapse sinkhole likely ravaged Westwood Estates. When the underlying sediment slid down into the carved out limestone, it left a vacuum of space under the top layer of soil. Then — gravity. Crust crashed down and fresh water sprung up. Even for a catastrophe that size, no one could tell what was forming. Not until it was too late.

Robasciotti’s family was fortunate – they were renters and able to receive aid from the Red Cross. They got enough cash to afford two nights at a Holiday Inn, which gave them time to find their footing. After the hotels, they couch-surfed with friends until they found a new home to rent.

But Thomas Berson remains trapped at his home on Northwest 14th Place. He can’t leave.

Last man standing

Berson bought the brick-paneled house in 2004. Crowned by a canopy of trees, his cul-de-sac used to feel peaceful.

Today, he’s just trying to tread water.

He sleeps on his living room sofa, his 6-year-old rescue dog Sam within arm’s reach. The sinkhole looms just on the other side of his bedroom wall. What’s to stop it from swallowing him in his sleep?

Berson tries not to think that way. He jokes that his house is a castle, or maybe a fort. It’s got all the amenities — a fence, a guard dog, a gun and a moat. It’s even got a Google location: “Berson’s Hole – a sinkhole and thinking park.” It currently boasts five five-star reviews, which Berson credits mostly to some of his friends.

“I was contemplating the lack of meaning to life,” one reads, “and staring into the abyss that is Berson's hole, when I realized that some people have it worse than me.”

Berson might have been more scared had he not been a Florida Master Naturalist. He even wrote his dissertation on springs and sinks in the state. “Long before beaches and resorts and theme parks defined Florida, nature did,” Berson noted in his 2011 paper. He’s always been drawn to Florida for its oddities. During his first six months in his Westwood Estates home, Berson said he saw hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires, Eastern encephalitis, shark bites, lightning strikes, tornadoes, alligator attacks — “We live in Jurassic Park,” he exclaimed. “That's all there is to it. Everything in Florida wants to kill you.”

Nearly every day, he travels into his backyard to assess the stakes from a safe distance. He questions officials about the progress. It’s usually Ted Goodman, a geologist with the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department. Goodman has come most days since the hole formed in October to take measurements.

One November afternoon, Berson pointed to the corner of his house closest to the sink.

“If you see right over there, more sloughed off the side. Has the bottom stabilized yet?” Berson asked.

“The water is rising, so it seems that the bottom is plugged up and won’t fall through again. But, you know —”

Berson nodded silently, face bleak.

I’m tired of this thing. I can only imagine how you feel,” Goodman said.

“Well,” Berson sighed, “there’s a big hole in my backyard.”

Because the future remains uncertain, the City of Gainesville created a newsletter to provide residents with updates. The city’s final report on Dec. 12 said that the sinkhole had held its water over the preceding four weeks. Since the subsurface is no longer slurping down the liquid, growth has reached a standstill. The city confirmed the hole won’t endanger the surrounding roadways, but it continues to digest Berson’s land.

Floridians live on or around sinkholes all the time. More subterranean cavities eat away at the Sunshine State than any other. After all, the peninsula is almost entirely situated atop limestone, a water-soluble rock.

But Goodman has never seen an active sinkhole of this size either, even with 28 years as a professional geologist under his belt. He said they don’t typically expand to this magnitude, and we never know when they will.

There is currently no way to predict where or how severe sinkholes will be before they strike. In Florida, they can be anywhere, especially as both population and development increase.

Geologists like Goodman and Olson agree that although larger populations could increase the chances of spotting a sinkhole, humans still leave an impact. Florida’s population growth rates have remained in the top seven states every decade since 1920. In most of them, it ranked in the top four. A larger population necessitates a larger amount of drinking water — about 90% of which gets pulled from the aquifers that carve caverns under highways and homesteads. When that water gets depleted, the rock above has nowhere else to go.

Legends lurk in murky water

The state has the largest concentration of fresh water springs on Earth. They flow into rivers and channels both above and below ground — fountains of youth. They’re exactly what Ponce De Leon set out to find when he arrived in St. Augustine. But prior to the Spanish colonization, the Timucua Nation had lived in northern Florida for 12 millenia.

The Western Timucua village of Potano was built near Devil’s Milhopper, a prehistoric sinkhole in Alachua County. Oral histories recounting the legends of Devil’s Milhopper vary, but they each have one thing in common — the belief that this sinkhole is quite literally a portal to hell.

One legend tells the tale of a Timucuan woman approached by Lucifer in his human form. He flirted with her; she refused him. So, the devil devised a plot for his revenge. In the dead of night, he returned to snatch the woman from her sleep and sling her over his shoulder. Her screeches woke the villagers who then chased after the thief, prompting him to stomp down his foot. The result was earth-shattering; the devil’s might caused the ground to give way. An enormous hole ripped open, and the Timucua people were turned to stones that bordered the rim. Their tears created the waterflow.

When the Spanish came in 1513, they stole more than the Timucua’s home. They stole their word: chua, or sinkhole. The area became La Chua and later, Alachua. It was an apt name. Sinkholes have long littered the terrain, but they seldom curb curiosity; in fact, they only draw more attention.

Through colonization and statehood, population grew and construction began. Houses, churches, malls; plumbing, wiring, mining. Sinkholes formed as they always did and were filled in or turned to lakes. Some Floridians even started to revere them.

In the 20th century, dozens gathered at a sinkhole in Madison County, only two hours away from Westwood Estates. Members of the Rocky Springs Methodist Church held worship at the spectacle there. They called it an act of God. A grainy black and white photo remains from the event; men donned suits, women dazzled in white skirts and frilled blouses. Each wore a hat to shield them from the Florida sun. They prayed with gratitude — it could only be by the Lord’s mercy that their land, their family were spared.

Between 2006 and 2010, insurers in the state reported over 24,000 sinkhole claims. That’s nearly 17 claims a day. Yet, residents still face an absence of official assistance. With no state model for sinkhole crisis-aversion, municipalities must start from scratch each time.

Struggling to stay afloat

This is the first time Rice has encountered a disaster like this in her 30 years on the job. She said it’s been difficult.

“There’s nobody to say: ‘this is what you have to do, this is how you deal with it and this is what happens afterwards,’” she said. It’s been a total freefall; there’s no codified support system.

The Westwood sinkhole log encourages neighbors to hire engineering firms themselves to assess safety and property damages. It wasn’t always like this.

Before 2011, a homeowner could report suspicion of a sinkhole to their insurance company. The insurer would send their own engineers to investigate, so residents didn’t have to pay the $8,000 to $12,000 assessment fee. Then the state legislature passed S.B 408, which changed the process of acquiring sinkhole coverage. Now, homeowners must acquire the official assessments for insurance reports on their own.

Once the assessment is complete, homeowners may present it to their insurance company. The insurer can then decide whether the situation constitutes “catastrophic ground cover collapse” damage — the only outcome that requires insurance coverage under Florida law. Sinkhole coverage is an additional rider that has to be added.

Berson has insurance on his home, but it didn’t include the sinkhole rider.

“This is theoretically covered by catastrophic ground loss,” he said. “Good luck. I can’t explain it. I don’t get it.”

He’s still waiting to find out if his house will be condemned, and if it is, he’ll wait some more to see if he’ll receive a settlement. The prospects are just as uncertain as the hole itself.

Berson still plays fetch with Sam, just more carefully now. He keeps a sharp eye on his dog as he smokes cigarettes on his back porch. Whenever Sam gets too close to the right side of the yard, an assertive whistle and a “Get over here!” brings the dog back.

Once the hole stabilizes, Berson thinks the city will leave it as a geological feature.

“Who wants to drive a truck up to the side of that thing and dump dirt?” he inflected. “That’s there to stay.”

Olson agrees. Just to fill in the surface portion of a sinkhole that large could cost over $1 million, Olson estimated. He may be right. In 2017, Pasco County spent about that much filling in the 240-foot chasm that formed in Land O’ Lakes. Residents there wish it were turned to a lake. At least that would’ve eventually increased their property value.

Berson was always going to sell his home. He just thought it would be on his own terms, to a nice family with young children who would play in the yard. Who would want it now? Would it even be safe to sell it to them? Berson doesn’t know. It will be hard to say goodbye, but with the way this year has been, he still considers himself lucky.

Renters like Robasciotti’s family don’t have to haggle over insurance. They’re not responsible for the land, so they don’t inherit the ramifications.

That felt like a bittersweet miracle to Robasciotti. In October, every attempt at stability evaded her. The sinkhole opened, Felipe’s closed and she lost her job as a bartender. Then in December, her partner Perlman closed down Leonardo’s By The Slice. She considered leaving Gainesville; it didn’t seem to want her here.

Instead, she found a place to start anew. Now, her family is settling into a home on Gainesville’s Northwest Fourth Ave. She serves drinks at The Top, and Perlman plans his next business venture. Her children, Moe and Olive, explore their newer, safer backyard. Maybe they’ll paint a new mural on the wall.

Robasciotti was able to minimize her losses, and for that, she’s relieved. Her home lost the battle against Mother Nature, but her family won the war — they’re safe, and they’re together.

Ava is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.
Natalia is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.