What’s that sound? The pipes in your basement creak and groan. The floor starts to tremble and shake. Cracks start to form and crawl up the walls. Is an earthquake happening? You drop down on the ground and crawl under a table.

All of a sudden, the ground beneath you starts to slump and collapse. Before you have time to react, a giant sinkhole swallows everything in sight.

Sinkholes are craters in the ground that form when water dissolves the rock layer underneath the soil. Sinkholes can create small ponds, or cause the ground to dip. In most cases, these sinkholes aren’t dangerous since they form slowly.

But you don’t want to find yourself standing above a cover-collapse sinkhole. They happen when there’s a layer of clay between the surface and the bedrock. Water seeps in and slowly wears away the clay, creating a cavern. When that layer caves in, everything above it is swallowed into the Earth.

So what can you do if you fall into a sinkhole? How much time would you have to react? And why might trying to climb out be a bad idea?

Step 1: Look for Warning Signs

The best way to survive falling into a sinkhole is not to fall in one.  Sinkholes tend to show plenty of warning signs before they start to become dangerous. Watch out for cracks in building foundations, walls, or sidewalks. Find the problem if doors and windows aren’t shutting as easily as they should.

Take a look outside as well. When a sinkhole forms, water will start pooling on the ground. Trees and fence posts will start to tilt or fall over. The vegetation might wilt and die due to the sinkhole draining away water.

If you notice these signs, find out if you live in an area that’s susceptible to sinkholes. Ask a geologist or soil engineer if your house is at risk. If it is, a professional can inject grout into the hole to reinforce the foundation. But, what you aren’t able to see these signs before it’s too late?

Step 2: Brace Yourself

By the time that cracks start rapidly appearing, you may only have seconds to get out before the ground collapses. If you are caught in the sinkhole, brace for impact. The size of a sinkhole ranges from 1 m (3 ft) to hundreds of meters in diameter and depth.

Cover your head, tuck your knees with your legs together, and fall on your side, rolling backward. This is called the parachute landing fall. It evenly distributes the shock of impact across your body.
The last thing you’d want to do is to land flat on your back or head. Ouch.

You’ve survived the impact, but you’re trapped deep in the sinkhole. What can you do from down here?

Step 3: Find a Safe Spot

If you can, try to move towards the middle of the hole. But don’t stretch out and relax. Anything above you could still fall. Stay low and small. See if there’s anything you can grab on to. The ground around you is still probably unstable and could sink even further. Wait until you’re on steady ground, and it’s safe to move. Then, you can start making your escape.

Step 4: Assess the Situation

Take a look at your surroundings. Is there any water filling the hole? Is there any more debris that could fall down? Do you have your cell phone to call for help?

Is the hole small enough to climb out of? If the hole is too deep, you probably shouldn’t try to climb out. There’s a good chance that anything you climb onto is loose. Not only that, but climbing could cause more of the debris to fall from above. In this case, your best bet is to call out for help and wait.

Your entire house might be destroyed, but luckily, you got out of this mess in one piece. So, if you notice an odd crack in the wall, or if your windows don’t shut as easily as they used to, pay attention. Look for the signs of a sinkhole. If you do happen to fall in one, use the parachute landing fall, find a safe spot, and call for help. Don’t try to climb out.

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