Sinkhole video sucks in Internet audience with vanishing trees

Remarkable cellphone video of the Assumption Parish sinkhole swallowing a stand of 75- to 100-foot-tall cypress in less than a minute Wednesday evening has gone viral over the Internet as social media and news organizations picked up the story.

In the video, the trees, slowly at first, but then quickly, slide past the Bayou Corne-area sinkhole’s frothing surface and disappear into its depths. (See video here)

The video has been posted on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other social media sites, as well as on more traditional media, from The Weather Channel and The New York Post to the Belfast Telegraph and the BBC. A Google search Thursday evening found 126 stories on the topic.

An headline may have said it best: “Louisiana Sinkhole Video Is Mesmerizing.”

Parish government officials said Thursday they had fielded 80 contacts from news organizations since the video was posted on a parish blog about 7:15 p.m. Wednesday.

The trees were sucked down in one of the now-common sinkhole edge collapses, or “slough-ins,” that have occurred as the hole has expanded from its original 200-by-200-foot area to the nearly 25-acre opening of today.

While occasional, slowly sinking trees have been captured on video, wholesale slough-ins have not.

Parish President Martin “Marty” Triche said people have heard and read about the sinkhole and “slough-ins.” In fact, when the sinkhole first emerged last year, the tops of cypress trees could be seen floating in the then-mucky hole, an indication the trees had pitched straight down into the hole.

But Triche said Wednesday’s video gave an “up close and personal view of what goes on in a slough-in.”

“To a certain extent, it kind of shocks the senses that it is occurring,” Triche said. “It kind of has a wow factor.”

Triche said the parish government’s YouTube site where the video initially was posted received 850,000 views in less than 24 hours.

“Like anything else, a picture is worth a thousand words,” Triche said.

Freda Yarbrough, The Advocate’s online content editor, said that by 8 p.m. Thursday, the video had been viewed 47,150 times through a link on the newspaper’s website. At that point Thursday, the link had been on the site nearly 23 hours.

“That’s a little more than 2,000 views an hour,” she said.

The sinkhole situated in swamplands between the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou communities was discovered early on Aug. 3, 2012, on property leased by Texas Brine Co. of Houston.

The hole has prompted an ongoing evacuation order applying to about 350 people with homes or camps in the vicinity.

Some residents have taken buyouts while others have sued Texas Brine and other companies over the incident. Still others remain in the area.

Scientists think the sinkhole formed after the failure deep underground of a Texas Brine salt dome cavern and has continued to grow as the sinkhole seeks its final shape and dimensions. Scientists have warned this geologic process they are still trying to fully understand could take years.

Texas Brine mines the large Napoleonville Dome under the area with high-pressure water to create brine, a key feedstock for the state’s petrochemical industry.

In response to the broad media attention Thursday, officials with the state Department of Natural Resources issued an advisory saying the loss of the trees Wednesday may underscore the seriousness of the situation but does not represent a new threat to public safety.

The slough-in falls within predictions, officials said.

“We have seen similar sloughing events several times in the past, often covering areas much larger than that which we saw Wednesday. Again, these movements are expected,” DNR Secretary Stephen Chustz said.

Texas Brine officials estimated that during Wednesday’s incident, a 30-yard-wide by 10-yard-deep patch of trees fell into the northeast corner of the hole, away from La. 70 to the north. Another tall tree in the same area collapsed into the sinkhole about 9 a.m. Thursday, parish officials said.

John Boudreaux, director of the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, shot the video about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday with his iPhone from a sinkhole access point north of the trees.

Boudreaux said he was making a routine check of the sinkhole after a burp, a kind of sinkhole disturbance, earlier the same day and saw signs around the trees that suggested a slough-in was imminent.

The burps, which are accompanied by underground tremors, usually result in the release of natural gas, debris and an oily emulsion to the sinkhole surface. They can also be followed by slough-ins.

Boudreaux, who was among the first to find the sinkhole last year, said that he was interviewed by a number of media organizations Thursday and has been asked to speak with Fox News and CNN on Friday.