DUNEDIN — They stood across Robmar Road, watching as the giant back hoe demolished what was left of their home, which had been irreparably damaged by a massive sinkhole Thursday.
The sinkhole opened underneath the Dupres’ home at 1112 Robmar Road early Thursday morning and eventually claimed part of the house next door, too, at 1100 Robmar Road. Under an overcast sky today, a demolition crew leveled the Dupre house and is expected to return Saturday to knock down the house next door, said Jeff Parks, chief of the Dunedin Fire Department.
Firefighters with the department picked through the debris left in the back hoe’s wake, salvaging what they could quickly collect before the rubble was loaded into a dump truck and carried away. A firefighter tethered by a safety line to a nearby telephone pole managed to grab an American flag that once flew from a pole attached to the house, along with a couple of stacks of books. Before the demolition started, firefighters took a push mower and other items out of the garage and saved the house number that used to hang from a post outside the house.
By the end of the day, the Dupres’ stucco ranch home was no more, its broken pieces and furnishings carted off to a salvage yard, where their former occupants would be allowed to sift through the debris, looking for anything that could be saved.
“It was horrible,” said Michael Dupre, the father of the house and the transportation coordinator for the Homeless Energy Project in Clearwater. He lived there with his wife, Jannie, who manages the shelter there, along with the couple’s 13-year-old daughter, Ivy, and the family dog, a Labrador retriever named April.
Just as perhaps the best thing someone could witness would be the birth of their first child, the worst would be watching the family home leveled, he said.
“Our thoughts are going to the things that are gone, the really small things,” such as gifts and amateur works of art members of the family made for one another, he said.
In one particularly heart-breaking moment, the family watched as the back hoe bucket broke apart a photograph of Ivy that was hanging in the hallway.
“It’s sad,” Dupre said. “Today it kicked in more. Yesterday, it was all very cloudy, the whole situation all day. Now it’s settled in, and you’re really aware of what happened.”
Residents still haven’t been allowed back into the other five houses that were evacuated on Thursday — two on Robmar Road and another three on Mary Jane Lane. Those people likely won’t be allowed back until the sinkhole, with a 90-foot diameter and a depth of 56 feet, is completely filled with dirt and experts determine the situation has stabilized, Parks said. That’s not expected to happen untillate Sunday or Monday, he said.
The hole-filling began in earnest today, with 52 truckloads of dirt filling about an eighth of the hole, Parks said. Originally, those on site estimated 600 truckloads would be needed, but that guess has turned out to be slightly high, the chief said. Now, it is believed 8,000 cubic yards of dirt will be needed.
Michael Dupre discovered the sinkhole off his back porch about 5:40 a.m. Thursday, and the hole kept growing throughout the day. By early afternoon, the hole had swallowed parts of the Dupre home, along with the house next door, where an in-ground swimming pool was among what the hole swallowed. A worker using a front-end loader was able to pull out a 14-foot boat that had fallen into the hole from the Dupres’ property, eliminating concerns that fuel might contaminate the groundwater. Luckily, no one was injured.
Neighbors said Robmar Road — which is in a middle-class neighborhood lined with ranch-style single-family homes near Dunedin High School and just north of downtown — has had problems with sinkholes. Years ago, part of the street itself collapsed.
Pinellas County is not part of the area’s three-county region known as “sinkhole alley.” Two-thirds of the sinkhole damage claims reported to the state Office of Insurance Regulation between 2006 and 2010 came from Hernando, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. But Dunedin has a history of sinkhole problems.
The Dupres discovered a sinkhole on their property two years ago, but a protracted legal battle with their insurer, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., over how to address the problem delayed action. Work started Tuesday — two days before the sinkhole opened.
The family’s attorney, Jason Salgado, wouldn’t speculate about whether the judicial delays or the repair work caused the sinkhole that opened Thursday morning.
Michael Peltier, a spokesman for Citizens, said sinkholes sometimes open up as work commences.
“It’s not uncommon that when you start to do remediation work, there is ground settling that takes place, but not usually as dramatic as what you saw today,” Peltier said.