Olive Branch waits to rebuild

Town has yet to receive FEMA money since 2011 flood

 More than a year after flood waters damaged hundreds of buildings in a small southern Illinois town, residents are still waiting on funds to rebuild.

Olive Branch, located about 50 miles south of Carbondale, was one town affected by record Ohio and Mississippi River flooding in April and May 2011. The town submitted its applications to receive funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency soon after the flood, but no money has been received, said Beth Ellison, a researcher in the biology department at SIU and a leader in Olive Branch rebuilding efforts.

The money would be used to rebuild the town with precautions to prevent future flood damage.

Around 200 buildings were damaged when two levees were breached last spring, according to information from the SIU geology department, which has been assisting in the town’s rebuilding plans. Some areas of the town were flooded with more than 6 feet of water, and many residents still have those memories fresh in their minds.

“We never dreamed this would happen,” said Harry Reynolds, a 10-year Olive Branch resident.

Reynolds, who recently turned 76, said his house was flooded by more than 2-and-half feet during last year’s breach. Instead of evacuating his home like many other residents, Reynolds said he stayed to protect the items in his home from getting stolen. He said he stayed on his front porch for 12 days and 11 nights as he lived off of items he stored in a cooler and waited for the water to recede.

“I had no one to keep me company except two Canadian geese, a bullfrog and a humming bird,” Reynolds said.

He said he never would have stayed if it wasn’t for his training from three years of service in the Marines.

Reynolds used to live in Tennessee until he went on a hunting trip to Olive Branch in 2002, he said, and moved to the town once he was able to convince his wife. Reynolds said he wanted to move after the flood, but his wife wanted to keep the house because she was attached to it.

In the flood’s aftermath, the town decided to work on a rebuilding plan similar to Valmeyer, a town that chose to relocate to higher ground after getting heavily damaged by a 1993 flood. Alexander County — which consists of towns including Miller City, Unity, Hodges Park and Olive Branch — asked SIU to work on the rebuilding process on its behalf.

Ellison said the idea originally started as a relocation plan but found it was a better idea to rebuild the town.

“After the 2011 floods, we were trying to find ways we could help,” Ellison said. “We proposed the idea to them of doing buyouts and potentially a relocation idea which would eliminate future risk of flooding.”

Ellison is part of a natural hazards research and litigation group that works across Illinois by going into communities and finding ways to make them more resilient to natural disasters.

“When we first started, it was just proposals on the buyout and a full-scale relocation,” she said. “Through working with the community, we realized that wasn’t really the best scenario for them, so we kind of switched mentalities and went for a community recovery and rebuilding.”

Ellison said most people did not want to move because of their community ties and desired location next to Horseshoe Lake.

Elmer Goskie is one such resident. Goskie has lived by the lake since 1977 and said he fishes every day. Moving away from the lake would just be a hassle for him, he said.

Goskie said the 2011 flood was only the second time water invaded his house since living in Olive Branch. He said the 2011 flood caused him to move items from his house by boat instead of raising it like he did the first time his house flooded.

“We don’t want to force anybody to move. That’s absolutely not the idea,” Ellison said. “And I think there are some ideas that we are going to force them to do … but that’s where we encourage people to get involved in the planning process.”

She said people have to move because the government declared their homes severely damaged, and those residents would be relocated to higher ground within the town’s boundaries.

Ellison said there is now an Olive Branch Area Community Development Corp., a non-profit organization that looks at possible options for planning and funding to rebuild the town.

The group also looks at ways to help rebuild Olive Branch’s economy. Ellison said the town’s economy took a hit because people own summer houses in the town to hunt and fish. She said tourism has taken a hit and money isn’t being spent in the area because the flood has damaged a portion of those houses.

“A lot of people are really enthused with all this, but the big thing is when (the construction will be finished) and that’s where people are most frustrated, and I don’t blame them,” Ellison said.

She said it is unclear when the project will get underway.

“We have the people in place, the experts in place,” she said. “They’re ready to help. But with (Olive Branch) being a small, rural community, there is not a lot of money available.”

Ellison said most of the residents are retired individuals who do not want to spend their money on new houses, and there are not a lot of jobs offered in town, so a majority of the project’s money will come from federal and state funding. She said the problem with this is federal and state funding takes time to collect, which is why it is taking so long to start rebuilding. Ellison said it has been more than a year since the town submitted a FEMA buyout application, which is a request for the federal agency to provide money to help rebuild the town.

“Everyone is getting discouraged because there is no money, so we are going to continue to lose people left and right,” she said. “I think once funding comes through and people start seeing the area can be rebuilt and recovered … I think we will get a renewed energy.”

That particular discouragement was displayed by Bruce Ford Sr., 15-year owner of Ford Brother’s Auto Repair and lifelong Olive Branch local.

Ford said the 2011 flood was the worst he has ever seen in the area. He said his shop was flooded with 3 to 4 feet of water, but he moved all his equipment in advance to prevent water damage.

Ford chuckled when he was asked when he thought the rebuilding would begin.

“Seeing is believing,” he said.

He said he thinks the rebuilding project is all talk right now, and believes many residents will choose to not move from their homes.

While some Olive Branch residents are unsure of the town’s future, many people including SIU faculty and students are working on a strategy to help rebuild the town.

Among those involved in rebuilding are experts Todd Strole of The Nature Conservancy in St. Louis, Robert Orr of The Seaside Institute in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., Dewey Thorbeck of the Center for Rural Design at the University of Minnesota and faculty and students from SIU’s departments of architecture, anthropology and political science, Ellison said.

Ellison said more than 50 students from the university have helped in some way with the rebuilding plan. She said the plan after rebuilding is to lease a building in Olive Branch by the university for a research lab and field trip location for students.

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