PLANT CITY – Cindy Kersey was at home alone Jan. 11 when her ranch-style residence started to shudder and shake.
She didn’t know what happened at first, but a sinkhole had opened in her backyard, fracturing the foundation, separating the roof from the walls and sealing several doors.
“My home was totally destroyed,” Kersey said. “But in spite of the trauma and devastating initial shock, after two months, my problems are over.”
Because her Sandalwood Drive home was so severely damaged that it was deemed uninhabitable by city building inspectors, insurance covered her loss. She, her husband, Evan Chrietzberg, and their 15-year-old son, Tulley, are living in a Park Road condominium.
“Now we don’t have to worry about the house, its value, what will happen to us tomorrow, what the city, county, state or insurance company will do or say. We’re the lucky ones,” Kersey said.
“The people who still live in the vicinity of sinkhole are the ones who are suffering. They are the ones I worry about.”
More than 20 homes in Plant City were damaged by sinkholes, including eight that were deemed unsuitable for habitation by city inspectors. The holes opened after growers pumped millions of gallons of water to protect crops from January’s record cold.
Indirectly there are dozens, if not hundreds of homes that will be affected by the sinkholes — both from the threat of damage and a potential decline in values if buyers shun their area.
Della Hernandez, a property owner who lives in Walden Lake East almost 100 yards away from Kersey, is among those who are feeling the pain.
“The biggest problem for me is that no one seems to have a solution,” Hernandez said. “I feel like I’m in limbo. I don’t know if my house is safe or not. Every noise that I hear makes me look to see if my house is damaged. Every night and every day I am afraid of what the future might bring.”
Many of the homeowners who would speak about the sinkhole that destroyed Kersey’s home, and the home next to it, say they discovered surface cracks in exterior walls, sidewalks, porches and terraces.
“Our insurance agent says they could be natural settling,” Hernandez said. “These homes aren’t new but the cracks that we have seen all happened in the middle of January, when that sinkhole showed up.”
Another neighbor, John Inzerillo, one lot farther from the Kersey home, said he has a hole in his backyard where the dirt has sunk out of sight.
“A city consultant came by and stuck a 3-foot long T-shaped steel rod into the hole, and it went all the way down without any effort,” Inzerillo said. “He seemed pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. He said ‘we live in Florida. It’s just a giant sandbar’ he told me.”
Besides the homes on Sandalwood Drive North, two homes have been deemed unfit for habitation on Creek Way Court and one each on Grant Street, Hammock Drive, Oak Lane and Trapnell Grove Loop, city officials said.
City Engineer Brett Gocka said the city can’t help homeowners who are concerned about sinkhole-related damage. The city can only spend money on public rights of way.
“We can’t just go in there and initiate a survey of a sinkhole or depression,” Gocka said. “Perhaps there is a way for a group of homeowners to hire a consultant but that would be a private arrangement. The property owners have to deal with this the best way they can.”
Inzerillo said he isn’t sure what he should do.
“I see cracks in the block walls on my house. I see a crack in my patio that I swear is getting bigger by the minute. I have lost any enthusiasm for continuing to fix up my house. It’s like pouring money down a sinkhole,” he said.
County Commissioner Al Higginbotham asked the county property appraiser to consider giving the homeowners in the area surrounding sinkholes immediate relief from the tax bills.
“The homeowners affected by sinkholes face a lack of support,” Higginbotham said. “The state statute on property taxes says the full amount must be paid for the entire year even if the property value plunges to zero on the home. Sinkhole damage occurred for the most part in mid January. The property appraiser’s office says they are out of luck. But that’s not good enough. I asked the commission to find a way to give tax relief for those homeowners. It’s not over yet.”
Kersey feels fortunate that she was reimbursed for her losses and could move on.
“It’s over for me,” Kersey said. “But I feel sorry for the rest.”
Read more about this Sinkhole Damage.