In Florida, a Town Seeks a Smile From Mother Nature
By Abby Goodnough
January 1, 2005
ELTONA, FL, DECEMBER 29 -It is a safe guess that all of Florida was ready to relegate 2004, with its freakishly active hurricane season, to the history books. But Deltona was especially eager.
The town, a sprawling bedroom community between Orlando and Daytona Beach, suffered through three of the state’s four hurricanes and still has plenty of blue-tarped roofs and disfigured trees to prove it.
A week before the first storm, six teenagers and young adults were bludgeoned to death with baseball bats in a quiet neighborhood here, a crime that was provoked, investigators said, by the disappearance of a video game system.
Then, on Dec. 13, a sinkhole began opening along a busy thoroughfare, possibly an aftereffect of the hurricanes and their pounding rain. This sinkhole, a quintessentially Florida phenomenon that is now 225 feet wide and 50 feet deep, brought sightseers, traffic nightmares, more unwanted publicity (“Next up: A plague of locusts, frogs, hail and lice,” a columnist for The Orlando Sentinel quipped) and new longing for a fresh start.
“It’s crazy, the things that have happened here,” said Larry Amos, walking back to his home after watching crews plug the sinkhole with truckloads of sand – 1,282 truckloads, to be exact – on Wednesday. “The storms, the big murders and now the big sinkhole right in the middle of the road there. It’s time for something nice.”
Deltona was meant to be nothing but nice when the Mackle brothers, developers who built an empire designing inexpensive communities for northern transplants throughout Florida, created it in the 1960′s. Brochures circulated in Chicago, Cleveland and other chilly cities said Deltona, its name a hybrid of Daytona Beach and DeLand, another nearby city, offered “everything for zestful living.”
A yellowed newspaper clipping at the Deltona Arts and Historical Center shows throngs of visitors arriving on charter flights from New York and St. Louis for a glimpse of the land they had bought sight unseen. “Mackle Brothers is bringing the property owners to Deltona to dispel rumors that they’re selling swampland in the Central Florida area,” the caption read.
Then, as now, people moved here for the affordable housing (initially as low as $6,960 with $210 down and $43.11 in monthly mortgage payments) and the weather – generally warm and sunny but, unlike in South Florida, occasionally crisp enough to remind them of the sweetest autumn days back home. Advertisements bragged of Deltona’s meandering streets, sandy terrain and many small lakes, but those have proven troublesome as the city’s population has grown to more than 80,000.
Poor drainage has led to serious flooding, and the city is now building an expensive system for controlling storm water. Traffic bottlenecks have forced several road-widening projects, including on Howland Boulevard, where the sinkhole appeared in the middle of one expansion.
Gerald Brinton, the Volusia County engineer, said the sinkhole was probably thousands of years in the making but was precipitated by the hurricanes, which saturated the ground.
The gaping hole, which within minutes swallowed trees, chunks of sidewalk, a utility pole and a blinking roadside message board, was probably the largest to appear in Central Florida since 1981.
A sinkhole in Winter Park, outside Orlando, consumed a three-bedroom house and five Porsches from a repair shop lot that year and created a 350-foot-wide lake.
Because of its geology, Florida gets more sinkholes – caused by the dissolution of underground limestone by acidic rainwater – than any other state.
The region around Deltona is especially plagued by them, Mr. Brinton said, adding that many of the small lakes visible from the air over Orlando were in fact old sinkholes.
But if the Howland Boulevard sinkhole was somewhat predictable for Deltona, the murders in early August were anything but, people here said. The four men charged in the crime broke into a house on Telford Lane late at night and used aluminum bats to kill six people sleeping inside, prosecutors say, because one victim had not returned an Xbox video game system to one of the killers.
“They were just bad eggs, that’s all,” Mr. Amos, 62, who moved to Deltona from New York seven years ago, said of the accused, who have pleaded not guilty to the crime and await trial.
Lloyd Marcus, president of the Deltona Arts and Historical Center, took it upon himself to do some public relations for his city in the last days of 2004, writing to a local newspaper about how some residents recorded an album to raise money for a man who had been in a serious accident.
“I can’t tell God he’s unfair,” Mr. Marcus said, “but I do think a lot more positive things are happening here that go unnoticed.”
Mayor John Masiarczyk, who said he was playing hooky on Thursday afternoon to work on his storm-pummeled yard, said 2005 would be a year of rebuilding, replanting and, he hopes, reprieve.
“We could use your kind thoughts,” he said.
November 14, 2004