From Disaster
to Destination

A sinkhole would be a catastrophe for most buildings, but not for the National Corvette Museum

Museums are living encyclopedias, cataloguing the preservation of our ideals and cultural longevity. Polite “do not touch” signs and velvet rope barricades surrounding memorabilia remind patrons of the historical significance of artifacts. But what happens when iconic antiquities are affected by an unforeseeable force that ignores “do not touch” advisories?

The National Corvette Museum–home to more than 80 makes and models of Americana–found out on February 12, 2014, when its showroom floor collapsed due to a massive sinkhole that carried eight classic cars and a piece of American automotive history into an abyss below the museum.

The unforeseen natural disaster soon went viral and became international news, securing its place in the National Corvette Museum's history. The venerable institution understood it needed to rebuild and re-envision what the museum housed. As this monumental task was beyond the realm of museum personnel, the National Corvette Museum looked to its steadfast insurance partner, Chubb, since Chubb had expertise in handling cataclysmic events. Chubb was there to guide the National Corvette Museum by helping it create a new chapter that could be appreciated by car enthusiasts and inquisitive patrons.

Image Credit

Wendell Strode with a classic Corvette that was spared from the sinkhole disaster.

Where sinkholes occur most often

In America, sinkholes occur most often in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania.

A Simple Idea from a Lover of Corvettes

The National Corvette Museum began as an idea in 1984, when a member of National Corvette Restorers Society envisioned a non-profit library where car-related documents could be compiled and accessible. It took years of meetings before the decision was made to break ground in Bowling Green, Kentucky, home to a Corvette plant built in 1981.

Since its opening in 1994, the museum has provided a livelihood for the city of 65,000. In Warren County, where the National Corvette Museum resides, tourism helps employ almost 4,500 individuals, according to a report by Kentucky's Tourism, Arts, and Heritage Cabinet. Bringing in approximately 225,000 visitors annually, the region supplies the state with more than $660 million in revenue from tourism each year.

Part of the museum's appeal serves as a mecca for auto aficionados, especially those who love Corvette's prestige. The National Corvette Museum showcases the history of “America's only true production sports car,” from the company's prototype to its one millionth car produced at the local Corvette plant.

Where sinkholes occur most often

In America, sinkholes occur most often in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania.

Image Credit

Wendell Strode with a classic Corvette that was spared from the sinkhole disaster.

Image Credit

Video installation of vehicles damaged by the sinkhole.

Karst

The topography of much of Kentucky is known as karst, limestone that's eroded, leaving holes and caves underground. Kentucky's karst is home to underground springs and rivers, increasing the potential for sinkholes as they wear away the rock faster.

Drainage

Improper drainage may have contributed to the National Corvette Museum's sinkhole, according to a National Geographic interview with Chris Groves, a distinguished professor of hydrogeology at Western Kentucky University who visited the site.


Sinkhole

The sinkhole was about 40 feet wide and about 30 feet deep when it opened. It has since been filled, although a manhole exists where visitors can see the depth of the sinkhole when it occurred.

The Fated Day

For almost 20 years, visitors had flocked to the site daily. Then disaster struck. “I was at home and received a phone call from our library archivist,” recalls the museum's executive director, Wendell Strode. Because of all the smoke and sediment in the air, “she thought we had a fire.” It wasn't until after she called the fire department that she realized what was happening. “She was very calm, cool, and collected,” continued Wendell. “We have some cars that have been damaged in the Sky Dome. I think you ought to come on down here,” she said.

“I'm thinking something fell from the roof onto the cars—I could not imagine that we had cars that had been swallowed up into a sinkhole,” Strode said. The sinkhole, the result of an unknown cave, was about 40 feet wide and 30 feet deep. The first thing Strode thought about was how grateful he was that no one was there when the incident occurred. The second was how to safely remove approximately two dozen cars still in the showroom.

The fire chief explained they would need a structural engineer to first examine the building to make sure it was safe to enter. This set the wheels in motion to create a rebuilding team. “We had just finished an addition,” Strode explained, “and so some of the first people the museum staff contacted were the local contractors they had worked with so they could get a structural engineer on site as soon as possible.”

The museum's finance and human resources director contacted Chubb. Chubb immediately sent Byron Smith, a property catastrophe analyst with experience in sinkhole claims and buildings of cultural importance.

“Sinkholes in general are high profile cases,” says Smith. “But in the case of the museum, it made it just so unique. In unique cases like this, it's important to have a proactive adjuster that assuages other people's concerns and identifies the full course of the damage.”

“Having individuals like Smith at the scene was important, especially right after the event because there was so much to do,” Strode said. “It was just a flood of decisions…as you would make one [decision], then two more would surface.”

With over 20 years in the business, Smith had the expertise to calm and comfort those affected. “The most important thing is to provide direction and help someone get to the end of the tunnel. It's less commiserating and much more providing solutions,” says Smith.

Smith was integral during each step because of all the questions that needed answers. “We had lots of meetings. Lots of discussions,” Strode said. Chubb also created its own team of civil engineers to ensure that the information and estimates Strode and the museum were receiving were fair and accurate.

Smith explains how Chubb assembled a team of four companies to oversee the work, including a structural engineer, geotechnical engineer, building consultant, and microgravity surveyor (one of only two in the country at the time). A local university's geoenvironmental team conducted a live case study of the area with geotechnical engineering students which added to the understanding of the situation. “The museum was happy to have their assistance; the contractors were happy to have their assistance—this happened to be one of those luck of the draw things.”

Karst

The topography of much of Kentucky is known as karst, limestone that's eroded, leaving holes and caves underground. Kentucky's karst is home to underground springs and rivers, increasing the potential for sinkholes as they wear away the rock faster.

Drainage

Improper drainage may have contributed to the National Corvette Museum's sinkhole, according to a National Geographic interview with Chris Groves, a distinguished professor of hydrogeology at Western Kentucky University who visited the site.

Sinkhole

The sinkhole was about 40 feet wide and about 30 feet deep when it opened. It has since been filled, although a manhole exists where visitors can see the depth of the sinkhole when it occurred.

Image Credit

Video installation of vehicles damaged by the sinkhole.

Types of bedrock that often cause sinkholes

Rocks and minerals naturally dissolved by circulating water are most likely to cause sinkholes. Most of the time, the bedrock is limestone, but can also be carbonate rock or salt beds.

The Show Must Go On

Smith explains there is so much to think about with a sinkhole, including the stability of the ground around it, the structure, soundness of building, and the cavern itself. “Before we could even think about taking the cars out, we had to think about the sinkhole itself,” he says. “You need to think about the humidity and temperature within the cavity—it's a pretty steady 54 degrees and high humidity. You have to be careful not to introduce warm, relatively dry air, because you get contraction around the clays (in the hole) that then slough off. It keeps eroding because of the change in environment. You don't want anything else to collapse after something like that happens.”

Smith says being a Chubb adjuster is all about knowing the seemingly trivial details that make up a case in order to make the best decisions and build the proper team, and this case was no different. “When you meet with someone, it's at their worst moment,” Smith says. “They need answers and they need them quickly. In this case, ‘is it safe to reopen to the public? How do we go in and retrieve what was valuable and what we lost?' It's all about efficiency and limiting the hiccups in order to get the business back up and running.”

Types of bedrock that often cause sinkholes

Rocks and minerals naturally dissolved by circulating water are most likely to cause sinkholes. Most of the time, the bedrock is limestone, but can also be carbonate rock or salt beds.

Image Credit

Wendell Strode inside the Corvette Museum, insured by Chubb.

Because of the team in place and quick approvals from Chubb, the National Corvette Museum partially reopened the next day to visitors and news outlets wanting to see the sinkhole. Visits to the museum skyrocketed as car fanatics swarmed to see the damaged cars and impact the sinkhole had on the museum.

While the team originally wanted to leave the sinkhole open, securing it structurally would have compromised the experience National Corvette Museum wanted to give its guests. In the end, Chubb helped the museum create a structurally sound floor over the sinkhole and an exhibit on sinkholes and underground cave system that exists under much of that region of Kentucky, including some of the damaged cars from the event.

“I think through all of this, Chubb was very much aware and supportive of acknowledging what the museum was: a museum, a tourist attraction and an education center,” Strode said. “Chubb supported [our mission] through the whole process and even later on, with educating the people, about sinkholes and caves and car systems.”

“That's really the Chubb difference,” Smith says. “Collaboration, paying the claims, and realizing there are other sources out there to put the insureds in a position they were before the loss, or better.”

Image Credit

Wendell Strode inside the Corvette Museum, insured by Chubb.