9 Investigates: Geologists could soon predict where sinkholes will form

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ORLANDO, Fla. - Florida had an especially active and frightening year for sinkholes, many of which captured national attention.

But only Eyewitness News anchor Jorge Estevez learned about a new $1 million study aimed at making it easier for geologists and other experts to predict sinkholes.

So far this year, Floridians have reported spotting more than 250 sinkholes, but Estevez found the reporting is not always reliable. He took a crew to Tallahassee to see how the new initiative will help keep people safe from a natural disaster.

Limestone, which has made up Florida's underground for 23 million years, is now the focus of the new $1 million project in which geologists will learn how vulnerable Florida's neighborhoods are to sinkholes.

"This study will give us a tool, a predictive tool to show people where the most vulnerable areas are in the state," said Assistant State Geologist Harley Means. "There are some things we have to be concerned with, and sinkholes are one of them."

Eyewitness News has reported on several major sinkholes during 2013. One near Tampa took a man's life after it opened up under his bedroom in February.

Another, in the Four Corner's area of Lake County, swallowed part of the Summer Bay Resort in August.

And yet another sinkhole collapsed parts of two houses in Dunedin late last week.

Geologists taking part in the upcoming study will also sample existing sinkholes.

Estevez followed them to the Apalachicola National Forest, where they have found one such existing sinkhole filled with water. They'll take evidence from that location and see if it supports their modeling.

Below much of Florida's surface are layers of cavernous limestone and the water table. Researchers hope they can develop a better understanding of the parts of Florida that are most vulnerable to sinkholes by examining the limestone in different areas.

"It's actually long overdue," said geologist Jonathan Arthur, who is leading the team in the sinkhole project.

The research effort should generate valuable information all Floridians can use.

"It will produce a map where sinkholes are most likely and least likely to occur," Arthur said.

Flooding during 2012 led Florida's emergency management officials to investigate the likelihood of sinkholes.

"They want to help limit the loss of life and property in Florida due to natural hazards," said professional geologist Clint Kromhout.

The research effort sounds good to Judy Maloy, whose antique shop was flooded and then threatened by sinkholes in the North Florida city of Live Oak following Tropical Storm Debbie.

"I think it's a wonderful idea because if you are close to something like that, you do worry," she said.

Next month, geologists will start their work in three North Florida counties, and during the next three years, they will cover all 67 Florida counties.