April 18, 2012

Key planning session set for May in Olive Branch

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Efforts by Southern Illinois University Carbondale faculty and researchers to assist flood-ravaged Olive Branch will take a major step forward next month.

One of the most eagerly anticipated phases of the work in the Alexander County community, which will focus squarely on the area’s future, is set for May 17-20.

An intense planning session during those three days will involve residents, architects, planners, engineers, and experts in fields including community design, rural development and sustainability.  The interdisciplinary teams will gather during a Design and Planning Charette to piece together their visions and plans “of what a revitalized Olive Branch area will look like,” said Nicholas Pinter, professor of geology.  He also leads the award-winning Natural Hazards and Mitigation Research Group in the geology department.

Pinter; project manager Beth Ellison, a researcher in the geology department; Craig Anz, an associate professor and architect in the School of Architecture; and Roberto Barrios, an assistant professor in anthropology, are among the University staff involved with what will likely be a “significant reconstruction of the town,” Pinter said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has yet to rule on a proposed $12 million buyout of flood plain property affected by record flooding in May 2011. Floodwaters inundated more than 200 structures, about 80 percent of them residences, and caused more than $13 million damage in that area, Pinter said.  About one-half of the unincorporated Olive Branch area is currently outside the flood plain, meaning only half of the unincorporated area is targeted for voluntary relocation.  A number of different nearby areas outside the flood plain are under consideration for residents who want to relocate, although land acquisition and development costs are not part of a buyout fund. 

“This is a great opportunity for experts to get together and correctively problem solve on real issues,” Anz said.

University personnel are working pro-bono in the collaborative effort that includes Alexander County officials and the Olive Branch Community Area Development Corp. Ellison and other members of the research group assisted property owners, held community meetings, gathered necessary documentation, looked at damage assessments and conducted a benefit-cost analysis last summer.

“Our broader interest is the scope of these issues nationwide,” Pinter said.  “We would love some portion of this to serve as a model for other communities; lessons learned, what to do and what not to do.”

Last month, the Natural Hazards and Mitigation Research Group in the University’s geology department earned the 2012 State of Illinois Mitigation Award from the Illinois Association of Floodplain and Stormwater Managers (IAFSM), an organization comprised of more than 600 professionals involved in floodplain management.  The award notes that in addition to the group assisting Olive Branch with its mitigation application, it developed mitigation plans for virtually all of the counties in Southern Illinois, and the 25 plans completed to date represent about 25 percent of the mitigation plans done in the state.  In addition, the award notes that SIU Carbondale “is a leader” in Geographic Information System (GIS) modeling, and that the group’s plans “have become a national model for how to incorporate solid GIS modeling to forecast risks and probability.”

The length of time between the federal buyout submission and approval brings home an important fact that Pinter hopes federal and state agencies, which are often located hundreds of miles from where disasters strike, will consider and work to reduce in future disasters.

“This is one of the narratives for us as scientists going into this and observing the process.  Without the manpower and resources of a large urban area, or in this rare case where a university is stepping in, local communities and counties don’t have the manpower and resources to pull something like this off,” Pinter said.  “The whole process becomes so bureaucratic and ponderous that they will leave the money on the table because they cannot handle the application.”

The lag time can have an impact on a family’s decision on whether to wait on a buyout, rebuild in the current location, or move, Ellison said.  About 90 percent of the property owners whose structures received heavy damage initially signed up for the buyout program.

“People are going to get on with their lives,” she said.  “The longer it takes the quicker they decide that they need to either buy a new home and sell the old one, or they just need to renovate their home.  If they’ve built their home back up I don’t blame them.  It’s hard to pick up and leave once you re-establish yourself.”

In November the Walton Family Foundation provided a $60,000 grant for community design and disaster recovery networking efforts.  Part of the funds enabled several Olive Branch area residents, SIU Carbondale faculty, and researchers from Lehigh University early last month to tour towns in Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois that have either rebuilt, or are in the process of building back from major natural disasters.

The visits to tornado-ravaged Greensburg, Kan., and Joplin, Mo., in addition to nearby Valmeyer, Ill., which relocated after 1993 flooding, re-energized the group, Ellison said.

“They were able to open up, see others’ experiences, and see that they are not the only ones going through this,” Ellison said. The message of Dennis Knobloch, the Valmeyer mayor, was to “not wait for someone to hand it to you, take it by the reins and go with it and don’t take no as an answer,” Ellison said.

The FEMA buyout will pay pre-flood market value for approved properties within the buyout area, in addition to subsequent demolition and environmental remediation costs.  New permanent buildings cannot be built in a flood plain area.  The ground could, however, be set aside for activities including a park, campground, or duck or goose habitat, Pinter said.

For more information on the design charette or the project, contact Anz at 618/453-3743 or by email at canz@siu.edu; or Pinter or Ellison at 618/453-3351, or by email at npinter@geo.siu.edu or beth.ellison@siu.edu.