Officials upset county not picked for sinkhole study

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BROOKSVILLE – Spring Hill leads the state in sinkhole activity, with an estimated 6,106 properties reporting void activity.

Many have unflatteringly referred to Spring Hill as the “Sinkhole Capital of Florida.”

So with all the notoriety, County Commissioner Diane Rowden can’t understand why the Federal Emergency Management Agency chose Hamilton, Columbia and Suwannee counties for a three-year project that will assess sinkhole vulnerability in Florida.

That project will be carried out by the Florida Geological Survey to start this fall and is funded by a $1.08 million grant.

“(Let’s) ask them why on earth they are doing studies in those three counties when we have a county here with (sinkholes),” Rowden said.

Rowden’s colleagues on the commission also questioned the state’s methodology in bypassing Hernando County and directed staff to fire off a letter to FEMA.

“That’s just ridiculous,” Commission Chairman Dave Russell said of the state’s decision. Russell directed the county administrator to draft a “what were you thinking” letter to FEMA.

County Commissioner Wayne Dukes asked board members if they were sure they wanted any more attention directed to the sinkhole problem in Spring Hill.

“I think they should come and look at our county too, but you do understand there’s a down side to that,” Dukes said. “If you Google Hernando County, a lot of things will come up about sinkhole capital of the state, and people are not coming because of that. But I agree if they are going to look, all they have to do is walk around here.”

Geologists hope the FEMA pilot study will eventually yield a map showing the relative vulnerability of the three counties to potential sinkhole formation.

The resulting model will then be used to produce a statewide map during the following two years.

The three counties were chosen because of past problems with sinkholes and their geographical differences, which will allow for a better model, according to state officials.

“Florida’s geology is complex and this grant will allow the Florida Geological Survey to produce a predictive tool that will refine our understanding of sinkhole occurrence throughout the state,” Jon Arthur, director of the Florida Geological Survey, said in a news release. “Ultimately, this assessment will aid planners, builders and environmental regulators for the betterment of human health and safety as well as the economy.”

“The Florida Division of Emergency Management is pleased to be a part of this project,” according to FDEM Director Bryan Koon. “Sinkholes present a potential hazard to many Floridians throughout the state. By better understanding sinkhole vulnerability in Florida, we will be better able to prevent loss of life and property and keep Florida’s families safe.”

The request was sparked by Tropical Storm Debby, which brought heavy rainfall to Florida in June 2012, triggering the formation of sinkholes. In the months leading up to Tropical Storm Debby’s record rainfall event, most of Florida had been experiencing extreme drought conditions, resulting in lowered water levels in aquifers. The result was an outbreak of sinkholes when rainwater caused dry underground voids – previously filled with water – to collapse.

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