The Robasciotti family could have never anticipated that their safe haven would cave in within a matter of days.
Erin Robasciotti, a 36-year-old Gainesville resident, was tucking her 11-year-old daughter in for a nap Thursday when she heard a thunder-like noise from her backyard. She then opened the screened sliding door of her home in the West End Estates neighborhood, located near Northwest 14th Place. She was met with a massive sinkhole forming in her backyard where her daughter spent her days playing.
The sinkhole was 60 feet wide and 25 feet deep when Gainesville Fire Rescue first investigated the scene on Thursday after a 911 call from a resident, GFR Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Hillhouse said. The sinkhole prompted the city to recommend the evacuation of six homes in the neighborhood.
Alachua County geologists now estimate that the sinkhole has grown 15 feet in width per day, he said. It is now about 90 feet, which is more than half the height of UF’s Century Tower. GFR installed a temporary fence and drained a pool that is now partially hanging off the edge of the sinkhole.
Hillhouse added that he strongly discourages the public from going to see the sinkhole in person to avoid any injuries or accidents. It is in four houses’ backyards and across from two houses.
While sinkholes are common in Alachua County, rapidly forming sinkholes like this one are a rarity, according to a report from the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department. Formations have been more common during the past 25 years because of human activity, such as groundwater withdrawal, surface water diversion and pond construction.
To Robasciotti, this situation is similar to when she lost her home and belongings to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She currently rents her home from her partner’s co-worker.
On Friday, she will lose her job at Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria, which is closing permanently. She said this may be the sign she needed to move her family out of Gainesville.
When she set her gaze on the sinkhole in her backyard, she was at a loss for words. Now, she’s vocal about the lack of support she has yet to experience from the Gainesville community.
“They just come and knock at your door and tell you to get the f--- out of your house?” she said. “There’s no assistance. There’s no FEMA. There’s no ‘Here’s a 1-800 number to get housing vouchers.’”
Her family is now homeless — staying in hotels and couchsurfing in friends’ homes, she said.
GFR officers asked Robasciotti, her partner and their daughter to evacuate their home so they could evaluate the infrastructure and have Gainesville Regional Utilities reroute power lines.
Five neighboring households in the West End Estates neighborhood also received a notice to leave their homes, but the decision of whether they chose to evacuate was left up to homeowners.
The American Red Cross offered emergency housing services for 48 hours to all five homeowners, Hillhouse said. All affected families made other arrangements, and the landlord told city officials the Robasciotti family had somewhere to stay, he added.
Where a common backyard between houses once stood, now all that remains is doubt and uncertainty for neighboring homeowners.
Tom Berson, a 50-year-old Gainesville resident who lives in front of the sinkhole, is now moving his belongings to storage. He said he’s lucky that he doesn’t have children to relocate.
Berson said he’s concerned about what will happen when the sinkhole grows and uproots his neighbor’s pool and surrounding large trees.
“All of the sudden you’re told you’re supposed to move in the middle of a pandemic with no idea where to move to,” he said. “I didn’t have this on my 2020 bingo card, man.”
The city is monitoring the fluid situation to ensure the safety of families who have evacuated their homes, Gainesville City Commissioner David Arreola said.
“We’re here for them,” he said. “They don’t have to face this situation alone. I would, however, advise every Florida family to look into sinkhole insurance.”
Alan Halaly is a first-year journalism and Spanish major and the East Gainesville Beat Reporter. This is his second semester on staff, and he previously worked as a news assistant on the Metro desk. He's excited to use this semester to shine a spotlight on underserved communities in Gainesville.