DUNEDIN — Michael Dupre first noticed the small cracks in the outside walls of his home at 1112 Robmar Road two years ago.
He filed a claim with state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which sent engineers to inspect the house. They saw cracks on several walls and damaged drywall in a bedroom. Their conclusion: sinkhole activity.
Citizens recommended pumping grout into the ground at a cost of $90,000 to $110,000, but Dupre thought more work was needed. His lawyers agreed and eventually filed a lawsuit.
The squabble stretched on, but after a sinkhole in Seffner in February killed and buried a man as he slept in his bedroom, Dupre, 50, feared his home could collapse and he accepted Citizens' repair.
Two days ago, workers with Champion Foundation Repair began pumping grout, a job expected to take about two weeks.
But it was too late. On Thursday morning, a sinkhole opened in Dupre's back yard, swallowing his screened porch, his 14-foot boat and part of his home.
"It's gone," Dupre said as he, his wife Janke and his 13-year-old daughter Ivy watched the home tumble into the hole. "This is our house. This is what we bought five years ago and hoped to grow old in."
The house next door at 1100 Robmar Road also slid into the hole, following the 20-foot swimming pool in that home's back yard. County records list the owner as Elvira Oakes.
Five other homes were evacuated as a precaution. No one was hurt.
The sinkhole, measuring 70 feet across and 53 feet deep by Thursday afternoon, is likely the largest ever in Dunedin, according to city engineer Tom Burke, though the city has a history of sinkhole activity.
"It's a remarkably big sinkhole," he said. "It's the largest by probably three times."
Early Thursday morning, Dupre's daughter was awakened by her alarm clock and immediately heard what sounded like hammering.
"Dad," she told Dupre, "someone is trying to break into the house."
Dupre got up and discovered the source of the sound: The screened porch was sinking into the ground.
The family evacuated. Once outside, Dupre called 911.
Responding deputies and firefighters knocked on the doors of six other homes along Robmar Road and Mary Jane Lane. A deputy banged on Matthew Tegerdine's door on Robmar: Get out now, he told Tegerdine.
On Mary Jane Lane, Pat Simons awoke to her husband telling her they needed to leave. She grabbed some clothes.
"We don't know how long we're going to be gone," she said outside her home Thursday morning, dressed in a combination of pajamas and jeans.
Neighbors watched as engineers, firefighters and deputies circled the sinkhole. It rumbled when concrete slabs and other debris fell into the abyss.
Helicopters hovered overhead. A backhoe pulled Dupre's boat from the hole — crews had feared the fuel in it could seep into groundwater.
Then, they waited.
"There's nothing we can do at this point," said Dunedin fire Chief Jeff Parks.
Dupre's home and the other house were condemned Thursday; later, they will be demolished. The other evacuated residents are expected to return to their homes today after workers dump dirt in the sinkhole to stabilize the ground, Burke said.
Dupre paced the street as he talked with the media, his family and his attorneys. He said he didn't know where he, his wife and their daughter would stay.
"I'm upset," he said. "This could have been taken care of a long time ago."
Dunedin is a hot spot for sinkholes, said Florida Geological Survey geologist Clint Kromhout.
"The Dunedin area has limestone fairly close to the surface," he said. "On top of that limestone is generally a mixture of sand with a little bit of clay."
Changes in the underground aquifers, along with rainfall, can dissolve the limestone over time, eventually causing it to collapse and create sinkholes.
In 1992, more than 200 Dunedin residents sued the city, claiming it was negligent in pumping drinking water from city wells and damaging hundreds of homes. Though an earlier study commissioned by the city found no connection between the outbreak of sinkholes and the pumping, the city eventually paid a settlement to residents.
In the past 30 years, 12 sinkholes were reported along streets north and south of Robmar Road. Robmar Road has had three sinkholes, counting Thursday's and a 25-foot-deep hole that formed in 1998.
On Thursday, Dupre asked officials if his wedding ring, which he had left on a desk in his Florida room, could be retrieved from his sinking home. A firefighter broke a window, crawled in and grabbed the ring.
Moments later, the Florida room began to crumble.
Times staff writer Claire Wiseman and staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Laura C. Morel can be reached at [email protected] or (727)445-4157.