Commonwealth Journal

January 19, 2013

Ferguson officials band together to deal with sinkhole problem

By HEATHER TOMLINSON, CJ Staff Writer
Commonwealth Journal

Fergsuon —  

It takes a village — or a local city mayor, with help from a fire department and a railroad company — to fill in a sinkhole. 
Ferguson resident Melissa Upchurch was in for the shock of her life last week when the ground in her yard fell out beneath her. 
“In that split second I’m thinking ‘oh my gosh, am I ever going to stop falling?’” Upchurch said.
Upchurch had returned to her home, located on West Govers Lane near the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, at around 3:30 p.m. Thursday to see a strangely sunken-in area in her yard that hadn’t been there before.
Curious, she approached the area and pushed a toe into the ground. That’s when the soil gave way completely, sending her straight down into a newly-developed sinkhole. 
Upchurch said she landed on soft dirt, and she said the edge of the sinkhole came up to her chest. The depth of the hole was at first estimated to be five- to five-and-a-half feet. 
Luckily, Upchurch wasn’t hurt, save for some scrapes and bruises to her arms and knees. She said she had to gather some of the loose soil beneath her in order to get out, with some help.
“She (Upchurch) called me on her cell phone and said ‘I fell in a hole,’” said Phillip Nevels, who lives at the home as well. “I looked outside and I just saw part of her body.”
Upchurch said she could feel the dirt shifting beneath her, and she said it was frightening to feel the edges of the sinkhole nearly fall in as she struggled to climb out. As soon as she was free, she called 911. 
“I was not really sure what needed to happen then,” Upchurch said.
The Ferguson Volunteer Fire Department responded and, after just a few minutes, roped the area off  until something could be done. The sinkhole, while not very wide, is located near the railroad tracks and a road. An ever-widening sinkhole could lead to serious issues with the nearby infrastructure.
Ferguson Mayor Allen Dobbs stopped by Upchurch’s home on Friday, and it wasn’t long before the sinkhole was filled in with rock and gravel donated from the railroad. 
“The railroad was kind enough to help us,” said Dobbs on Friday. “ ... it seems to be pretty stable right now.”
Dobbs  and Upchurch both said the sinkhole actually stretches horizontally back several more feet — which means the ground directly above that chasm  was unstable as well.
“We drive our cars over that spot every day,” said Upchurch. “Imagine what would’ve happened if the car had been there when it was like that.”
Dobbs estimated that the sinkhole could’ve been between six and eight feet deep without the loose soil. 
By around 4 p.m. Friday — about 24 hours after the sinkhole opened — the area seemed to be more stable. Dobbs even stayed and helped fill the sinkhole in, which left an impression on Upchurch, who had never met Dobbs before Friday. 
“I was very impressed with him (Dobbs),” said Upchurch. “He was not leaving until the situation was taken care of.”
Dobbs said the City of Ferguson has dealt with several sinkhole problems, and he said quick action to fill the holes in with debris and rock is the best way to take care of the issue.
“You have to (stabilize sinkholes) for safety’s sake,” said Dobbs. “ ... These things can pop up anywhere.”
Sinkholes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), are common where the rock below the land surface is limestone, carbonate rock, salt beds, or rocks that can naturally be dissolved by ground water moving through the formations. As the rock dissolves, spaces and caverns develop underground. 
The land usually stays intact for a while until the underground spaces get too big. If there is not enough support for the land above the spaces, a sudden collapse of the land surface can occur — as in Upchurch’s case. 
Collapses can be small or they can be huge and can occur where a house or road is on top.
Many Pulaski County natives know that the ground we live on sits atop a complex karst network (rocks dissolvable by water) that is susceptible to instability. 
The USGS states that damage from sinkholes is recorded most in Kentucky, Florida, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. 
Upchurch, who will be watching her yard closely, along with Dobbs, for any signs of destabilization, had nothing but good things to say about the response to the situation.
“We’re very appreciative to everyone who was involved,” Upchurch said. “They went above and beyond what they had to do.”