What It's Like to Live With a Giant Sinkhole in Your Backyard
The sinkhole, when it's not full of rainwater.
The monster sinkhole in Dianne Walker’s backyard has already swallowed part of the wooden fence she put up two summers ago.
It is roughly 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep. Her shed rests on the edge, hanging over the hole like a house built on a cliff. Bottles litter the outer skirts of the crater. Bricks intermingle with stones where foundation used to be. When it rains, the hole becomes a gross swimming pool.
“To just get up and look at that back there, how can you go on with your daily life?” she said. “Any day, you can come home and you don’t know what you’re gonna find.”
Seventy-three-year-old Walker lives just behind Sims Bayou in southeast Houston, and she’s been living there since 1967. “My husband and I built our lives here, raised our children here," she said. Before he died two years ago, he cut yards for a living, and all of his tools, along with other belongings and Christmas decorations, are hanging in that shed.
She found the sinkhole last June while she and her brother were working in the yard planting flowers, back when the wooden fence still concealed it. The city came out and put a little plastic orange fence around it, which has since been replaced after the hole became too big and swallowed the first one up. Since then, Walker has been waiting for the city to actually do something, worried that the shed will soon be swallowed up just like the fence, taking with it the memories inside.
Then, of course, there is her actual home, which is a mere 30 feet from the massive hole. The back guest room is the closest to it. The floor gives a little when you walk into it, as if you're stepping onto a firm mattress — something that never used to happen before last summer. “When I come back here to get my clothes for church,” says her sister, Rose, who moved in to keep her company, “I pray to God that I don’t fall.” (Into the ground with the whole room, she means.)
The City of Houston is well aware of this gigantic pit — or at least it has been since last June. According to Public Works spokesman Alvin Wright, Walker's shed sits right on top of a storm drain pipe that leads to Sims Bayou — a major storm-water thoroughfare for her surrounding neighborhood. He suspects that the ground sunk after this pipe deteriorated and broke, causing the soil to erode.
Wright said it has been taking a while to repair it because the Public Works department has been engineering the solution carefully so that the pipe doesn't break again. “It's not like you can go out there and throw dirt on it and it's done," he said," and you can't just slap a piece of pipe in the ground. That's not prudent, and it's not a good use of taxpayer dollars. It would be like replacing an artery in your body with a straw: It won’t last a long time.”
He at first estimated it could take up to nine months from now to finish this project; then, after consulting with the contractor, he revised that to the end of April — which would still be more than ten months since Walker started losing sleep.
Though she has insurance, the thought of disaster keeps her awake. First the shed, she thinks, then what?
“I still get up through the night and when it rains, or when the wind blows," she said. “I look out the window to see if it’s still there.”
A photo of the sinkhole taken a few hours before the one at the top, when the previous night's rain hadn't yet drained into the soil.
Courtesy of Rose Curvey