For those of us who can watch them from behind the protective barrier of a computer screen, sinkholes seem pretty cool. Yes, they cause destruction, but in a world where large objects normally stay where we put them, there's a certain fairytale quality to the way they can just suck away enormous chunks of the earth. They can swallow parked cars:
They can swallow trees with cartoon-like efficiency:
But for the residents and ex-residents of a tiny town in Louisiana, sinkholes are pretty much the worst things ever.
Let's start at the beginning. On 3 August 2012, the residents of Bayou Rouge, Louisiana, noticed a funny, petrol-like smell in the air. Later that day, someone stumbled on a giant hole filled with sludgy water on the western edge of the town, not far from the fork of the Bayou Corne waterway.
The hole, it was soon established, was caused by the collapse of an underground salt cavern, mined by a company called Texas Brine. On that first day, the hole covered around an acre of land. Here's helicopter footage over Bayou Corne taken another ten days after the hole opened (they reach it around 35 seconds in):
As sinkholes go, it's not particularly glamorous. If we're completely honest, it looks like a giant pond. But as time went on, it became clear that this sinkhole's work was far from done.
When the walls of the mine collapsed, it turned out, they let natural gas and oil filter up to the surface, to escape into the town's air. As a result, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal issued an evacuation order on the day of the hole's discovery. Many left the town; some stayed in defiance of the order. Texas Brine was tasked with investigating the collapse.
Yet things kept getting worse. Texas Brine have burned off millions of cubic feet of escaping gas and oil in an attempt to keep it out of the atmosphere. There are fears that the sinkhole might explode if the escaping gas ignites. Oh, and it's grown to cover around 31 acres. This is the latest satellite image of the town from Google Earth:
Spot the sinkhole! Clue: it's the giant black pit visible from space. Image: Google Earth.
The sinkhole has been swallowing up Texas Brine's revenues, too. From the beginning of the evacuation, the company sent each resident a weekly cheque for $875. In August 2014, a federal judge approved a $48.1m settlement, which Texas Brine will spend on buying up the town's properties and paying residents' damages. It's also paid out to some families as restitution for the "mental anguish" they've experienced since 2012.
But, three years from the sinkhole's first appearance, the town's residents and ex-residents are still stuck in limbo. As of January, according to the Louisiana Advocate, 12 families of the original 150 remain, though they, too, will leave once they've reached a deal with Texas Brine. And the empty houses? The company has shut off utilities and is stripping out appliances, leaving them as empty shells. It remains to be seen whether they'll be demolished, or whether Bayou Corne will become a ghost town.
Scientists say the sinkhole's growth has slowed (though it's been belching out mini-earthquakes since mid-December), so it seems unlikely it will finish off the town completely. This probably isn't much consolation for Bayou Corne's once close-knit community, though: as ex-resident Nick Romero told the Advocate, the worst thing isn't the sinkhole's destruction – it's "losing all your friends" as they're forced to scatter around the state.