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As Pasco sinkhole widens, more homes put on alert

LAND O'LAKES — The massive Pasco County sinkhole widened by Wednesday, prompting officials to warn additional residents that they may need to evacuate if it keeps getting bigger.

The growth three days after the opening that appeared to have stabilized is due to erosion of the sandy soil around it, according to Pasco County officials. They said they do not believe it indicates further instability in the underlying limestone bedrock that caused the ground to collapse and swallow two homes last week.

The sinkhole — already one of the largest in Pasco in decades — widened by about 10 feet and now measures about 235 feet across. The depth remained at 50 feet as of Wednesday.

In response to the widening, the occupants of two houses on nearby Canal Place were told to begin gathering their belongings for possible evacuation in the near future. Three houses remain without power and vacant, in addition to the two destroyed by the sinkhole. A handful of other homeowners have left on their own, said Kevin Guthrie, assistant county administrator for public safety.

If the widening continues, more houses will be put on alert and some residents may be asked to voluntarily evacuate. After the focus had begun shifting to developing a multimillion-dollar safety and rebuilding plan, residents in the Lake Padgett Estates subdivision once again face anxiety over the creeping hole.

"It's unnerving to think that it's so close," said Randy Herman, 59, who lives about 100 feet away from the two homes newly put on alert.

Pasco officials hope to prevent further widening by bringing in soil as soon as possible to provide more support. The soil would be placed around the edges of the hole so that they drop off more gradually than at the current 90-degree angles, Guthrie said.

"As the earth dries out back to that sandy Florida soil, to keep it stable we need to bring in soil to create some type of slope similar to a beach," he said.

But that won't be easy to do. Getting the dirt in will take dump trucks, and the ground needs to be stable enough to support their weight. Workers were using ground-penetrating radar to test stability Wednesday.

For now, Guthrie said he is targeting Saturday to start bringing in dirt and potentially removing debris. That could change by a couple of days in an abundance of caution and depending on the radar results.

"The last thing I want to do is get anybody hurt," Guthrie said.

The county will be waiving well water testing fees for more than 400 homes in the vicinity, said Tambrey Laine, a county spokeswoman. The test typically costs $7 and is done by the county's environmental lab.

Herman, the Canal Place resident, faces particular challenges in dealing with the sinkhole. While some on the street have evacuated, it isn't as easy for him to leave.

He is a quadriplegic with blood pressure issues and could move only somewhere that is handicap-accessible. Herman said he was looking into selling his house to move closer to family, but a real estate agent told him Wednesday there is next to no market for it given the sinkhole concerns. In the meantime, he said he will wait it out at his home.

Herman said he hasn't seen an incident like this happen in his more than three decades living in the neighborhood.

One of his aides stopped coming to his house out of safety concerns, he said. On Wednesday, another caregiver, Heather Marty, 34, was at the house, though she said she'd rather not have been.

"I personally don't feel comfortable either, but I have to come," she said. "He can't get out of the house by himself."

Contact Andrew Dunn at adunn@tampabay.com.

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