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Looters, insurance questions add to damage from sinkhole

Published Sep. 13, 2005

In the week since a massive sinkhole devastated Andrew Peterson's electronics service and repair business, looters came to pick the carcass clean.

Although relatives and friends helped Peterson salvage the most valuable televisions, stereos and computers, looters repeatedly broke into the remaining half of the building this week and "stole whatever I had left."

That included everything from patch cords to portable stereos to videocassette recorders. They even stole a satellite dish attached to the building.

As an exclamation point, vandals sprayed graffiti on the interior walls over the weekend.

On Monday, Peterson reopened his business, Handy TV Sales and Service, in a new location at 2134 Mariner Blvd. For Peterson, it's actually an old location. It's the same building from which he moved his business two years ago when he moved to Linden Drive.

In addition to the sinkhole damage and the looters, Peterson said he has found out the hard way he was "way underinsured." He estimates losses at more than $100,000.

"It's not been a good couple of weeks," Peterson said.

He's convinced overpumping of the adjacent wells by Florida Water Services triggered the sinkhole.

"It's not like that cavern was never there," Peterson said. "But it may not have been triggered for another 1,000 years. I mean, come on, they've got four wells on that little property. Something's got to give. It doesn't take an engineer to figure that out."

He's considering legal action.

Tracy Smith of Florida Water Services dismissed the suggestion.

"No one can make that determination until a significant amount of study is done on it," Smith said. "There's no indication we've done anything to have caused that. . . . There's a whole lot of wells around the state without sinkholes next to them."

Pumping statistics provided by Southwest Florida Water Management District indicate two of the four wells on the property operated above their designated capacity. But Swiftmud allows wells to operate 50 percent above those capacities on occasion. Statistics do not indicate Florida Water Services ever exceeded the allowable limits of pumping.

Steven DeSmith, an engineer with Swiftmud, noted that even if the four wells adjacent to the sinkhole were to have pumped at their peak limits for three months and there was no rainfall during that period, the water level in the aquifer would only be drawn down 3.8 feet.

Smith said a team of technicians and engineers is still investigating whether to fill the hole or leave it as a permanent natural lake. Florida Water Services also will determine whether to reactivate two wells shut down after the 150-foot wide sinkhole was discovered.

One of the wells is "awfully close to the sinkhole," Smith said. "From a non-engineering, non-technical perspective, it doesn't look like that one's going back on."

Engineers also are considering whether to refill a 1-million gallon storage tank emptied last week when a small sinkhole opened up next to it.

The larger sinkhole appears to have stabilized, Smith said.

"We're keeping an eye on it."

As for Peterson, he said it seems likely the sinkhole will remain a natural lake.

One contractor told him the hole would require 100,000 cubic yards of fill, which would cost about $400,000.

He's still waiting to hear back from his insurance company.

"I'm in limbo," Peterson said.