When sinkhole swallows Dunedin woman's world, community responds

Elvira Oakes recalls the night a sinkhole took her home — and the community's response.
“You don't realize certain things until it happens — that feeling of not having any clothes to wear,” Elvira Oakes says. Getty Images
“You don't realize certain things until it happens — that feeling of not having any clothes to wear,” Elvira Oakes says.Getty Images
Published December 27 2013
Updated December 27 2013

DUNEDIN — Elvira Oakes does not like being in the spotlight. After a sinkhole, 90 feet across and 53 feet deep, opened up in her back yard last month, swallowing her home, speaking to the media was the last thing she wanted to do.

However, now that she has settled into a rental property not far from the home she lost on Robmar Road, Oakes agreed to talk to the Tampa Bay Times about her ordeal, and how she has continued on with her life.

A nursing instructor at Pinellas Technical Education Center, she had lived in the house in northwest Dunedin for almost twenty years. She raised her three children there, and about six years ago, her second husband, Steve Oakes, moved in so they could start their new life together there.

"We lost everything,'' said Elvira Oakes, 52. "But you know, the outpouring of generosity has gotten us through.''

It was her husband who first recognized that something strange was going on outside their home on that Thursday, Nov. 14. At about 4 a.m., he had gotten up to give his baby grandson, Lucas, a bottle. Lucas often stays with the Oakeses while his mother, Sarah Folk, works.

He heard thumping sounds on the roof. "He thought the noise was citrus rats, and he went back to bed,'' Elvira Oakes recalled.

But around 5:30 a.m., as she was getting ready for work, Steve Oakes rushed into the bedroom and handed her the baby. "He told me to take the baby because he was hearing these loud pops that sounded like the roof was on fire,'' she said.

Steve went outside, running across their patio. "At first, he didn't know it was a sinkhole, but he quickly realized the patio had shifted. He saw the pool at a strange angle. He was actually going down into the sinkhole,'' she said.

"He came back inside and told me not to panic, but to take the baby out of the house.''

As the couple began to grab what they could, including their three dogs, their neighbor, Ivy Dupre, 13, came to the door. "(Ivy) told us the sinkhole had opened and her family was already out of their house. Very quickly there were so many firemen, policemen on the street, so many rescue workers outside,'' Elvira Oakes said.

"I remember when we went outside, it was a very cold Thursday. A fireman came over to me, and he told me he was a grandpa and asked if he could take the baby to sit in the fire chief's car with the heat on,'' she said.

Although the family was able to collect a few items out of the house, including Lucas' playpen and high chair, it was quickly determined that it would be dangerous for anyone to spend any more time in the house.

The Oakeses' and Dupres' houses were demolished within days after the sinkhole opened.

"You don't realize certain things until it happens — that feeling of not having any clothes to wear, for example," Oakes said. "But the things I miss most are the things you get on Mother's Day. The things that your child made for you in fourth grade, my grandmother's jewelry from Germany . . . now it's all (buried) under ground.''

However, Oakes stressed that especially now, during the holiday season when friends have made sure her temporary home is filled with Christmas decorations, including a tree, she will not dwell on what was lost.

"If I did focus on what was lost, I don't think I'd be able to see all the love that is being sent to us.''

From the Greater Dunedin Community Foundation that gave them $500, to fellow parishioners at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, "who literally opened up their closets,'' the outpouring of generosity has been overwhelming, she said.

"Some things have been extra incredible,'' she said. "Like a day or so after it happened, we stopped by to look at the house, and a stranger came up to us and gave us $200. He said that he had been praying for us and believed he needed to give us the money.''

For New Year's Eve, the Oakeses will stay in. "All we want to do is have a game night and a quiet celebration at home, in our rental home,'' she said. "We're feeling very thankful, and we know we've survived very well and have felt so much love from our community.''