Over the past few months, Jim and Joan Bates have heard creaks echo throughout their home and have seen cracks form in the walls and the floors. It gave them a sinking feeling.
So the couple hired an engineer and a local contractor who pledged to fix any "sinkhole activity" that would threaten to swallow their 23-year-old home.
They were a little too late.
A nearly 15-foot-deep sinkhole opened under the Bates' home at 2133 Orchard Park on Wednesday afternoon, almost completely devouring the garage and the front of the sprawling, ranch-style house.
Though that area of Hernando County is known for some of the heaviest sinkhole activity in west-central Florida, neighbors and rescue crews said it was one of the largest and deepest — and most destructive — sinkholes they had seen.
At the time the gaping hole formed, a crew from Geo-Logical, Inc. of Port Richey was working to repair holes under the 2,100-square-foot home. "Hey, it happens," Jim Bates, 51, said. "We're just thankful that no one was inside the home or got hurt."
In fact, Bates was almost jovial about the ordeal. He said the house is worth less than they paid and that the insurance money they will recoup will be more than the house is worth.
"It's a blessing in disguise," he said. "We've got a home with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a sunken garage."
Jim works for the Pasco County school district; Joan is retired. They were at a doctor's appointment when their home was swallowed, but their three dogs — Mandy, Mindy and Rudy — were inside. The dogs were freed by the construction crew.
The couple returned to find that their front yard had turned into a natural disaster, 23 years to the day Joan Bates, 57, moved into the home with her young family.
Upon seeing the partially collapsed house, she sat on the ground and teared up.
Several neighbors came by to offer their sympathies, gawk at the damage and take pictures.
"Everyone has been having sinkhole activity around here," said Brett Levy, who lives across the street. "But this is horrible."
"It's unbelievable," said Kevin Carroll, a district chief with Spring Hill Fire Rescue. "This is pretty close to one of the worst. And I get called on these regularly."
Over the years, homeowners in Hernando and Pasco counties have experienced steep insurance spikes because of sinkholes. Geologists have said they think the sinkholes are appearing because limestone bedrock in the area is close to the surface, making it more likely to break apart. The drought adds to the problem as groundwater levels decrease.
Joan Bates moved into the home in 1986 but the cracks and noises from the shifting ground recently made it hard to feel safe.
Hopeful that they could fix the problem, the couple called on Geo-Logical to fix the holes through a process called "compaction grouting." Essentially, the crew will drill holes around the home and pump them full of concrete to fill the fissures.
Jim Bates said the crew started working at the home last week. But sometime Wednesday afternoon, Bates said the crew noticed a hole forming under the garage.
"It just opened bigger and bigger," Bates said.
Within minutes, the home was consumed. As of Wednesday night, Carroll said the house still seemed to be sinking. He said there was nothing to do but rope off the site.
Carroll wouldn't allow his firefighters to go inside and the Bateses have been advised to stay out, too. The couple was looking for a place to stay Wednesday night that would allow their dogs.
Jim Bates said insurance would cover the damages. Carroll contacted Red Cross and Publix to make sure the couple could renew their prescriptions and get some items they might need for the next few days.
Inside the home were nearly all of the couple's possessions. In particular, Jim Bates wanted to salvage his "toys" — two water scooters and a motorcycle — from the garage. "We'll probably move back to this area," Bates said. "Florida is still a great place — sinkholes or not."
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.