Owner: I was told it was OK
Five months before the earth opened and swallowed his home, Buddy Wicker welcomed inspectors sent by State Farm Insurance to his house, who surveyed the property and deemed it free of any sinkhole risk.
Last week, a 20-foot-wide sinkhole yawned under Wicker's Seffner, Fla., home, killing one of its residents, and sucking down a bedroom. The entire home was later demolished.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Wicker said he was stunned by the incident, given the inspector's report. A State Farm spokeswoman would not comment specifically on the case but confirmed an inspector had been to Wicker's house.
“They said everything looked good,” Wicker, 75, said. “They looked for cracks and stuff like that in the wall. They didn't see any. I was told it was all OK.”
The incident Feb. 28 gained national attention and rekindled talk about sinkholes in Florida, which sees more of the phenomenon than any other state.
That night, Jeff Bush, 37, was asleep in his bedroom at the home at around 11 p.m. when the sinkhole suddenly opened, swallowing him and all of his bedroom furniture. It's often difficult to detect sinkholes from visual inspections, said Anthony Randazzo, a former University of Florida geology professor and current president of Geohazards, a company that specializes in evaluating sinkholes.
Insurance inspectors, such as the one who visited Wicker's home, look for pre-existing sinkhole damage and signs such as cracks in the walls, doors that don't open or close correctly, shifting foundations and cracks in the driveway, he said. Even those don't always tell the whole story.
A 2011 law passed by the Florida Legislature makes it harder to get insurers to pay for expensive subsurface testing if a homeowner suspects their home is sitting on a sinkhole. The law was in response to claims by insurers that they were processing too many frivolous and fraudulent sinkhole claims, said Lynne McChristian, the Florida representative for the Insurance Information Institute.
“Sinkholes are hard to determine,” McChristian said. “The geological testing involved with a sinkhole is expensive. No one knows for certain when and where a sinkhole can happen.”