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Sinkholes common, but usually not deadly

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A Tampa-area man died when a sinkhole opened up below his bed last week. The home has since been demolished and the sinkhole, filled in with gravel. (Source: CNN) A Tampa-area man died when a sinkhole opened up below his bed last week. The home has since been demolished and the sinkhole, filled in with gravel. (Source: CNN)

(RNN) - The bizarre, heartbreaking story of Florida man who died in March after a sinkhole opened up beneath his bed last and swallowed him makes for a frightening narrative.

But such events are so uncommon, most Americans shouldn't worry about it happening to them.

"Deaths due to sinkholes are extremely rare and to my knowledge, there are only three that have occurred in Florida dating to the 1960s," said Dr. Jon Arthur, state geologist with the Florida Geological Survey.

That total includes the recent death of Jeff Bush, who died after a sinkhole formed beneath his Tampa-area home. Rescuers used specialized equipment, but still were not able to locate his body. The sinkhole that took his life is now his final resting place. Crews began demolishing his home on Sunday and filled in the hole with gravel in an attempt to stabilize it.

The US Geological Survey says states where the most damage from sinkholes usually happens are Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

In states where sinkholes are common, tests and surveys are available that can determine if one is likely to develop on a home site. However Arthur says the tests are so expensive, most homeowners and builders typically forego them.

But there are some common-sense practices people can employ to protect themselves.

"Once you're in the home, you want to be observant of your home," he said.

"Not every crack in your home means a sinkhole. There are a lot of reasons the land can subside and you can have cracks in your wall and foundation. If these cracks grow and continue to grow - doors and windows that used to open easily are now more difficult - you have something going on. It could be related to a sinkhole or just compaction of sediment." 

Sinkholes form when ground water circulates through and dissolves certain types of soft rock, usually limestone, salt, gypsum, anhydrite and dolomite. 

As the rocks dissolve, caverns form and eventually, there is not enough strength to support the land above, triggering a sinkhole.

A sudden collapse can vary in size from a few feet to hundreds of acres and can range from 1-to-100 feet deep.

"Roads, buildings, landfills, storm water ponds, most of them occur out and about in fields and forests," Arthur said.

Human activity can also trigger sinkholes, where groundwater pumping, new construction and development and groundwater manipulation occur.

In 2011, a Florida man died while drilling a well after a sinkhole opened up beneath him and his truck.

As for sinkholes like the one that took the life of Bush?

"It's just rare," Arthur said.

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