PLANT CITY — As East Hillsborough farmers pumped water to keep their crops from freezing this week, the underwater aquifer in Plant City dropped 60 feet, a rare, steep decline even for these conditions.
Scientists say the water in the aquifer helps keep the ground stable. The dramatic drop in water level, however, can cause sinkholes.
On Monday, at least four sinkholes opened up in Plant City. One swallowed the ground below a mobile home and forced neighbors to find somewhere else to sleep. Another threatened a house in Frostproof, as residents fled for stable ground.
In the late afternoon at the Oakbrook Mobile Home Park, Nancy Regan scrambled to pack up everything she owned as her single-wide mobile home continued to sink into a 14-foot-deep hole. And to think, that morning had started off great for her.
At 10 a.m., the truck driver was making arrangements to travel to Atlanta for her first job since October. She was on the phone when her two dogs started barking. She yelled at them to shut up, and they did for about 10 seconds. But they started again. That's when she heard banging on the front door. It was her boyfriend, Rick Crabtree, trying to get it open.
"Pull on it!" he yelled. But she couldn't budge it. He told her to try the side door, which they realized was stuck, too.
"Get out of the house!" she heard him scream through the door.
"The house is collapsing!"
She said she heard a noise like ice crackling, but it turned out to be the sound of concrete splitting, screws popping, wood splintering, metal crunching and walls cracking.
Then she realized she left the coffee pot on. Not wanting her home to burn down, she ran to the kitchen to turn it off.
Her boyfriend yelled from the back window as she stepped onto the now-sloping hallway. She walked uphill toward the bedroom window, put the dogs out and started looking for some clothes to put on over her pajamas.
That's when her boyfriend grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her out.
The sinkhole stretched 20 feet across. The mobile home perched on the outer edges. A bicycle left beside it slipped below ground level.
A common Florida scene, said Harley Means, head of hydrogeology at the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"You have two plagues of living in paradise: hurricanes and sinkholes."
Factors contributing to sinkholes: the condition of underground limestone, the amount of weight on the surface and the level of the aquifer underneath.
In Plant City, a 60-foot drop in one week is rare, said Robyn Felix, a spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Hard freezes bring 40-foot drops, or maybe even 50. But this long, sustained freeze has required farmers to pump more water.
Sinkholes, Means said, typically occur in times of drought, or when aquifer levels are otherwise low, as they were in Plant City on Monday.
The enormousness of what happened sank in half an hour after Nancy Regan made her escape, as city workers and police began to converge on Oakbrook Lane and neighbors gathered to gawk into the hole.
She began to shake.
"Oh, my God," she remembers thinking to herself. "This happened to me."