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Is Your Home Sitting on an Ozarks Sinkhole?

Sinkhole Regions in Missouri
Sinkhole regions in Missouri, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Photo credit: DNR

The sinkhole map on the Missouri Department of Natural Resource (DNR) website shows Greene Country heavily covered with yellow dots. Each dot represents a known sinkhole. It can be difficult for area homeowners to know exactly if their property is protected from cave-ins caused by sinkholes. KSMU’s Rebekah Clark asks the question, ‘What can homeowners--and homebuyers--do to protect themselves?’

First, a refresher in geology: sinkholes are collapsed areas of land, and they're formed when the carbonate bedrock dissolves, or when underground caves collapse, according to the DNR. Their size can range anywhere from several square yards to hundreds of acres long, and may be very shallow or hundreds of feet deep. And, according to Springfield real estate agent Jeff Frye, it can sometimes be impossible to know if you’re building on top of one.

“You know, they say that the ground under Springfield is like an English muffin; it’s full of caves and holes and it’s just part of the topography where we live. The cities and the counties and the engineers do the best they can to identify all of those, but it’s typically it’s not something you hear about until something happens.”

Frye has been a real estate agent in southwest Missouri for 18 years. He’s had experience in working with engineers and inspectors to find out, as best they can, if potential developments sit on sinkholes.

“When a developer does the engineering for a new subdivision, there’s typically a part of the engineering process that is a sinkhole examination where the engineers look at the plotted sinkhole maps and known sinkholes. Now some might be in areas where nobody would know…they may have not developed yet, because in this area, you wouldn’t be allowed to get a building permit to build on top of a sinkhole,” said Frye.

Sinkholes can form when cracks from the Earth’s surface, sometimes caused by dead tree roots and other things, allow water to come in and erode the soil between surface and the underground cave. Eventually, after enough rain falls, the eroded ground can’t hold the surface. This leads to depressions forming, and eventually the ground sinks into the cave below.

Frye says sometimes these cracks don’t even form until something or someone on the surface helps the erosion process, like, for example, building a home.

He says most homeowners don’t think to ask about sinkholes, but if by chance they have one on their property, it can kill the value of the home.

Brittany Waugh works as a client risk advisor for a private insurance company in Springfield.

“Sinkhole coverage is a little bit different. It’s not included on the typical homeowners policy. When you just go out and purchase homeowners insurance, there’s a misconception that sinkhole would just be automatically included. I’m sure most people, if their house fell in a sinkhole, they would think of their insurance first...so the misconception is that it’s automatically included, and that’s not true.”

She says some insurance companies will write sinkhole insurance. The best thing to do, she says, is know your neighborhood, know the risks, and if you feel that you’re in a dangerous area, have a conversation with your insurance agent to see if it’s offered.

“A lot of people don’t ask for it unless they’ve had an experience, or maybe it’s top of mind in their awareness because they’ve seen it on television. A lot of people aren’t alert to the fact that they need to talk about it,” said Waugh.

She says in her seven years on the job, she’s never had a client have a problem with sinkholes, but she still thinks it’s a good idea to talk about it.

The DNR has sinkhole maps on its website. The department also has more in-depth information about a sinkhole’s formation, and what you can do to be on the lookout for one.

For KSMU News, I’m Rebekah Clark.

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You can find links to that information on sinkholes by going to our website: www.ksmu.org