ORLANDO, Fla. — It started with a crash. Screams. Then nothing.
The earth opened up and swallowed a Hillsborough County man late Thursday in a terrifyingly rare reminder of the unpredictable dangers lurking just below Florida’s surface.
Central Florida — particularly the Interstate 4 corridor from Volusia County to Hillsborough County — is more susceptible to sinkholes than the rest of the state because of its geology.
Its subdivisions, shopping malls, schools and roads are built on Florida’s spongelike crust of limestone, which is full of cavities and cracks that sometimes collapse.
“This is a hidden danger,” Manoj Chopra, a University of Central Florida civil engineering professor, said yesterday as word of the killer sinkhole spread across the globe.
Sinkholes form when water dissolves limestone, causing sands to migrate through and form a hole on the surface — like the neck of an hourglass.
“It’s like someone pulling the plug on a drain and swoosh, everything circles down the hole,” said Mike Perkins, curator of the Orange County History Center’s sinkhole exhibit. “This is almost like an earthquake; it just happens.”
The region has a history of activity, including a 320-foot-wide, 90-foot-deep sinkhole that swallowed a Winter Park car dealership and home in 1981. It is now a pond near Fairbanks Avenue.
Three years ago, sinkholes collapsed lanes of U.S. Highway 27 in east Polk County. And several years before that, a sinkhole that opened up on Scott Lake swallowed enough water to make the shoreline recede dramatically in a Lakeland-area exclusive neighborhood.
Chopra said activity that can’t be seen occurs under the surface constantly.
“A large number of these will not show you any type of symptoms on the surface at all,” he said.
And though there’s no sure way to predict sinkholes, researchers know that heavy rainfall or extreme drought can cause sinkholes to accelerate.