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Grand Forks woman's diary recalls the Flood of 1997

One family's account of living through, and surviving, the catastrophic natural disaster that wreaked havoc in the Red River Valley

Ginny Bollman.jpg
Retired Grand Forks educator Ginny Bollman pages through a book she wrote for her dad for Father's Day in 1997, recounting her family's memories of the Flood of 1997.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – Recognizing that the Flood of 1997 was a historic event, Ginny Bollman compiled her memories and pictures from the disaster into a 20-page book, a detailed account that captures her family’s extraordinary experience during that time.

Bollman, a longtime educator and school administrator in Grand Forks, compiled the book in honor of Father’s Day as a gift for her dad, Reuben Ellwood. In 1997, Reuben and Ruth Ellwood were living in Ellsworth, Iowa.

Ginny dedicated the book to her parents and, on one of the first pages, wrote this phrase: “Written especially for my Mom and Dad, from whom I inherited the strength to beat the disaster.”

“As a teacher, a reading teacher and a principal, I think it’s important we don’t forget what happened” at the time of the Flood of 1997, she said in a recent interview with the Herald.

Water for miles

At the time, her earliest glimpse of what the community would be facing occurred on Thursday, just before the weekend of the flood in April 1997. Bollman and a colleague were flying back from a convention for school principals in San Antonio, Texas. At that time, Bollman was principal at Viking Elementary School.

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They left the convention early as they were nervous about what was happening here and feared that school might be called off for a couple days to sandbag.

As the plane neared Grand Forks, “all we could see was water, so we knew there was a problem,” she said.

An earthen dike had been built on Belmont Road; it stretched in front of the house where Ginny and Jim Bollman had lived since 1978.

The Bollmans’ daughter, Lana, then 19, called Ginny at the school at 7:30 a.m. Friday and said they were to evacuate their home. Lana called again that day to say a National Guardsman had come to the door and told her she had to evacuate.

Later that morning, the sirens blared and radio reports informed listeners to leave home.

“We had three dogs and a ferret when we evacuated,” Ginny remembered.

The Bollmans’ first thought was to stay at Viking school, but Ginny’s sister told her to come and stay at her home in south Grand Forks; they did. Later, they moved to her sister’s lake cabin near Walker, Minnesota, where they stayed for three weeks. Jim, a veteran radio broadcast personality, and Ginny commuted daily to Grand Forks to work. Jim worked at KCNN, the Recovery Station, most of the time.

Disruption everywhere

The academic year abruptly ended in Grand Forks with the flood, Ginny said. But when the thousands of K-12 students evacuated with their families and left town, their education could continue.

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“When the kids went to different places, other schools took them in,” she said, noting that the state continued the per-pupil payments to the school district and no teacher lost pay during that time of lost instructional days.

Like so many others, Ginny had her hands full. The basement of her home had filled with water and at garden level it was about 3 feet at its peak. She was not only a wife, mother and school principal, she also was president of the United Lutheran Church Council.

“I lost a third of the (Viking) school, half of my house, and the basement of United Lutheran was flooded,” she remembered.

Sadly, Jim’s mother, who lived near the Twin Cities, died May 10 of that year.

Looking back, Ginny wonders “how did I survive that? I should’ve gotten meds,” she said with a laugh. “But you do what you have to do.”

Through many of the challenges, she was inspired by the calming presence and capable leadership of Mark Sanford, superintendent of Grand Forks Public Schools.

Gathering with other Grand Forks school principals at Grand Forks Air Force Base, she said, “That was the first time I saw Mark Sanford in anything other than a white shirt, buttoned up, with a tie. He was in a polo shirt. We all thought, ‘oh, he’s a real human being.’ ” She laughed at the memory.

“He was so stable, so wonderful and helpful; he’s my idol,” she said. “He always said, ‘People first. People are the most important.’ ”

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Returning to chaos

Only after power and hot water were restored could the family return home.

“May 23rd was our first night together back in our own home,” Ginny wrote in the book. “It was cold, smelly, cluttered and dirty, but we were home!

“The dirt dike in front of our house was removed on May 28 and on May 29 the garbage was taken off our berm. It took four gravel trucks loaded full just to take our stuff away.”  

Humor was essential to surviving the ordeal, she said. “You have to use humor to alleviate the pain.”

She and her family used the term “BS,” short for “berm stuff,” for everything they hauled out of the house and onto a pile near the street.

In the clean up, Lana and her brother, Mitch, found bowling balls in the basement.

“They got tired of hauling stuff all the way to the berm,” Ginny wrote in the caption of a photo showing the siblings throwing the balls down the driveway.

“Mitch hopped one ball all the way over the pile and in the river. It’s in Winnipeg now,” the caption reads. “They laughed and laughed,” she said.

At the end of the book, Ginny inserts an optimistic, and maybe a defiant, note. The final page reads, “But we’ll be back because Grand Forks is not for wimps!”

For Ginny, who retired in 2004 after a 32-year career with Grand Forks Public Schools, memories of the flood bring up “far more good feelings” than bad ones, she said.

Grand Forks has seen so many improvements in landscape and the addition of the Greenway; roads and infrastructure are much better and buildings were improved, she said. “(The flood) forced us to do some things.”

Ginny also cited “feelings and relationships,” the sense of connection, which grew out of such a sad event, and the “thankfulness and gratitude” that resulted, she said. “We were so humbled and grateful. We have such appreciation for the Salvation Army and the Red Cross.”

“Everything is so much better,” she said. “It goes to that God moment where you have to have faith.”

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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