Tampa Bay Times investigation: Cracks in the system

Published January 1 2012

It's the Great Florida Sinkhole Lottery and the payouts are big in Hernando County.

A Spring Hill couple notices cracks creeping across the floors of their home. They claim sinkhole damage and their insurance company cuts them a check for $206,000.

A widower returns from his wife's funeral to find one room filled with water and a two-inch gap between floor and door. He files a sinkhole claim and gets $211,000.

And a retiree from New York puts in a claim after his insurer says it plans to drop sinkhole coverage. He gets $260,000.

Insurance companies forked out more than a half-million dollars on these three houses alone, but the cracks and gaps are still there. None of the owners used the money to make repairs.

The house "can fall in the ground for all I care,'' said retiree John Backer, who invested his $260,000 payout. "I made my money already."

According to an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, Backer is among hundreds of Floridians — especially those in the "sinkhole alley" of Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties — who have paid off mortgages, put in pools, replaced roofs or otherwise used money from sinkhole claims to do something besides fix sinkhole damage.

The result: Homes from Brandon to Port Richey to Weeki Wachee sit unrepaired, decimating property values and draining millions of dollars in tax revenue from local governments already hard hit by the recession.

First in a three-part series is here.