SIU faculty help rebuild Olive Branch

By Matt Daray

University faculty are contributing efforts to rebuild a small southern Illinois town.

Members of SIU’s departments of anthropology, political science and architecture departments are some contributors in the rebuilding  of Olive Branch, a town in Alexander County.

The town received flooding more than a year ago that resulted in water damage for more than 200 buildings. As a result, Alexander County asked SIU and other organizations to help with the rebuilding process.


Federal Emergency Management Agency was in charge of the project’s funding. Though funding has yet to be received, SIU has plans to rebuild when it arrives.

The rebuilding task has been an area of interest to some faculty members involved in this process.

Roberto Barrios, an associate professor of anthropology, said he works as a consultant for disaster-induced community displacement and resettlement. He said he has studied community relocation for 14 years and worked in post-disaster recovery planning, as he worked in Honduras and Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath.

“The thing I have been interested in as an academic is that when disasters occur in contemporary state societies, most disaster affected communities have to interact with either governmental agencies or organizations … that usually make decisions about how aid is going to be distributed,” he said. “A lot of the communities we look at don’t necessarily have autonomy that they get to decide how they want to reconstruct.”

Barrios said government agencies and organizations usually have assumptions about what social well-being and resources will be needed for the affected area. When they help with rebuilding

He said town reconstructions can inadvertently disperse people and affect social communities, and his job is to prevent that in Olive Branch.

“Communities aren’t just a bunch of strangers living together. Communities are formed from social bonds and relationships that take time to build up,” Barrios said. “In many occasions, those social bonds are not considered an object of concern of organizations and government agencies.”


He said this was the case with his experience in Honduras, which caused street gangs, crime and social disorder to rise in the newly constructed area. Community residents were viewed as individuals and not as a whole community, Barrios said.

Other faculty members such as Chad Schwartz, an assistant professor of architecture, are not used to rebuilding work.

“I have only been at SIU for a little over a year, but my impression is that this is the first time (the department of architecture) has participated to this extent in a town redesign and rebuilding,” Schwartz said. “I have never participated in a process like this before.”

Schwartz said several members of his department participated in a four-day design effort at the end of May with the goal to generate a series of conceptual strategies to rebuild the greater Olive Branch area.

“This project is an amazing opportunity for our department — both faculty and students — to bring our expertise to a community in need of it,” he said. “I think we all feel privileged to have been invited by the community of Olive Branch to participate in this event and to have the opportunity to learn more about their families, lives and goals for their home.”

Schwartz said it has been a blessing to have some tangible impact on Olive Branch residents.

“The best part of the process for me was getting to know the people of Olive Branch,” he said. “They were warm and welcoming and an absolute pleasure to work with and learn from.”

Schwartz said about a half a dozen faculty members and around 10 graduate students participated in the town’s design effort.

Laura Hatcher, an assistant professor of political science, said she was part of one of six teams of rural and urban planners, architects and fresh water biologists who created a plan to rebuild Olive Branch. Hatcher said she also offered to help with the documentation of land acquisition issues once FEMA funding becomes available.

“As a researcher interested in law and property issues in post-disaster settings … this is a unique opportunity for me to both help my broader community and also learn firsthand what FEMA process is like,” Hatcher said.

Hatcher said she and Randolph Burnside, an associate professor in political science, are the only two involved from their department. She said they may get others involved with the process if redevelopment expertise is needed.

“Everyone is getting discouraged because there is no money, so we are going to continue to lose people left and right,” Beth Ellison, a researcher in the biology department and a leader in Olive Branch’s rebuilding efforts, said in a Sept. 18 Daily Egyptian article. “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.”

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

Ellison could not be reached for an update by press time.