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The Day the Earth Opened Up

Remembering the Winter Park Sinkhole of 1981

Most Winter Park residents are familiar with Lake Rose, a small, secluded lake lined with trees at the corner of Fairbanks Avenue and South Denning Drive. What many don't realize is that the site was once where a home, a community pool, and part of a foreign car dealership were located.

That was before May 9, 1981. Earlier that day, Mae Rose Owens was alerted by her dog barking and a hole in her yard that had not been there before. And the whole was growing. Before long, a Sycamore tree that was decades old disappeared straight down into the hole.

Her three-bedroom house was next, followed by the swimming pool and a portion of the car dealership, including five Porsches. The sinkhole continued growing until it was 350 feet wide and 75 feet deep. Geologist Jim Jammal, at the time Florida’s foremost expert on sinkholes, said it was “the largest sinkhole event witnessed by man as a result of natural geological reasons or conditions.”

Fortunately, Mae Rose and her family, including her dog, Muffin, were able to evacuate before the house was swallowed up and no one was hurt. At the time, The Orlando Sentinel reported the damages totaled approximately $4 million. Once the whole stabilized, the small lake formed and was named Lake Rose in Mae Rose’s honor.

The giant Winter Park sinkhole quickly became national and even worldwide news, as well as becoming somewhat of a tourist attraction, as the news spread and people came to take a look for themselves. To no one's surprise, some people even started setting up booths at the rim and selling commemorative T-shirts that read "Sinkhole '81," s well as food and souvenirs to curious gawkers.

Three of the Porsches were eventually pulled out with a crane, leaving the other two for archaeologists to discover at some point in the distant future.

As devastating as the sinkhole was for the people who lost property that day, along with the insurance companies that likely had to cover the losses, there was a silver lining that has become part of Winter Parks lore, showing how communities can pull together in times of need. Winter Park residents were able to raise money to help Mae Rose recover her losses.

Sinkholes are a somewhat common occurrence in Florida caused by natural and man-made phenomena. As the water levels in Florida’s aquifer fluctuates, it sometimes leaves gaps between the water, which is applying pressure to the ground from below, and the surface. When those gaps exist for a long enough period of time, the surface slowly starts to collapse from underneath and eventually is too thin to support its own weight, as well as the weight of any structures built on top of it. At that point, the ground collapses into the aquifer and a sinkhole is formed. In fact, many of the lakes in Florida are the result of sinkholes. Some, like Lake Rose, formed recently while others can be thousands of years old.

The Winter Park sinkhole of 1981 led to the creation of a sinkhole research institute at the University of Central Florida to investigate what causes sinkholes and if they can be predicted. Today, that work is mostly handled by the Florida Geological Survey, which tracks events throughout the state

The giant Winter Park sinkhole quickly became national and even worldwide news, as well as becoming somewhat of a tourist attraction, as the news spread.

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