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Sinkholes open in Pasco and Hernando under Debby's downpour

HUDSON — There was one benefit from the sinkholes that opened Sunday in Salvatore Coco's yard on the corner of Bolton Avenue and Becky Lane.

They sucked out all the water.

While Tropical Storm Debby's downpours pounded the coast, numerous sinkholes opened in Hernando and Pasco counties. The storm caved in a 4-foot-wide patch of concrete on Majestic Boulevard in Beacon Woods. It opened holes in a property on Grand Boulevard. It widened the gap that swallowed the back half of Susan Minutillo's Beacon Woods East house last week, expanding the chasm between 10 and 15 percent, said Michael Bishop at Pasco County Emergency Management.

In Hernando, county engineer Brian Malmberg said that by Tuesday his office had received more than 216 damage repair requests for county infrastructure. Part of Quality Drive near Spring Hill Regional Hospital and Suncoast Elementary School were closed after the roadway caved. Part of a taxiway that runs parallel to the main runway at Hernando County Airport had to be closed Monday because of nearby sinkhole damage.

Late spring and early summer are sinkhole season for this part of Florida. Normally, water in the aquifer supports layers of clay and sand on top of limerock, but when levels in the aquifer drop, the support, too, is gone, leaving underground vacuums, said Dave Arnold, professional geologist with the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Debby's torrents added weight to the soil above, causing the surface to crumble.

"The voids are pretty much ready to go," Arnold said. "They just need a trigger mechanism to make it collapse."

Coco, 75, watched Sunday as the storm poured inches of water on the plot where he's lived in a mobile home since 1998. Water swirled through the gaps in the metal fences he'd used to line the perimeter. The wind tore a wooden awning he'd built off the side of the home, flung it into the cold water.

Night had fallen when the first sinkhole opened next to his dirt driveway. Coco said it was like flushing a toilet — suddenly, the water churned away from his home and into the pit.

Three more sinkholes opened in his yard throughout the next couple days. Two crumbled from under the metal fence, leaving the wiry barrier dangling weakly. One was closer to the road, just far enough away to still be considered Coco's problem.

Coco contacted Pasco officials to report the issues. He was told the holes were his problem. They wouldn't provide dirt, labor or even yellow tape to warn away potentially ill-fated passersby. Coco lives on a private street.

Coco called the fire department next. They gave him the tape, at least. They wound it around his fence, the wooden pole supporting a rusted black mailbox, a metal pole sticking out of the wall of one of the sinkholes, the post supporting power lines at the corner of the road.

By Wednesday, Coco had spent about $550 on dirt. He hired a man with a heavy loader to drop and push soil into the first hole, which had widened until it was about 12 feet across and 20 deep, Coco said. The soil quickly turned to mud in the damp weather.

He spent Wednesday in his yard, attaching ropes and hooks to an old red Chevrolet pickup. He tried to move large pale blocks from his property into the holes.

Coco wasn't taking his time with the repairs, though. He was afraid a neighborhood teenager sauntering past his house would tumble into one of the chasms. But he's living on fixed income, and until his next Social Security check comes, the holes stay.

Coco's daughter has been trying to get him to move to Palm Harbor for years, encouraging him to abandon the property and allow her to buy him and his wife a home, away from sinkholes.

It's not that simple. He's set up fences, built awnings, expanded the garage to hold the antique cars he repairs. This is his home, he said, and, for now at least, he'll stay.

Times staff writers Tony Marrero and Logan Neill contributed to this report. Mary Kenney can be reached at mkenney@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247.

Sinkholes open in Pasco and Hernando under Debby's downpour 06/27/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 29, 2012 1:47pm]
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