It was just a spontaneous pick-up game of volleyball, but it may have been the moment that George Srur, 68, a teacher’s aide at South Middle School, knew that Grand Forks would bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic.

For 17 days before the 2020 Christmas break, the school was shut down. “That was the peak time of fighting the virus,” he said. “The halls were empty. The place was as clean as a church, but there was no one there.”

Almost no one. A few staff people and some special ed teachers and students were at South. Srur stood at the front door, greeting people with masks and hand sanitizers and smiles. He reminded kids to wash their hands, and it all earned him a new nickname. “They called me Mr. Clean,” he said.

On one of those 17 days, somebody produced a volleyball, and the small contingent of students, teachers and staff made their way to the gym.

“Everybody was cheering, no matter who scored, and it seemed like everyone was on the same team, no matter what side of the net they were on,” George said. “The place became alive, vibrant. It was so moving, so powerful – so binding.”

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The pandemic was tough. It was everywhere and it was personal.

So was the Flood of 1997.

George Srur was 44 then, working on a special assignment for the city building inspector’s office. On July 2, wearing a yellow construction helmet, he stood on a rise overlooking the Lincoln Park neighborhood, destroyed by the flood five weeks earlier. He held a video camera and recorded the demolition of the first houses deemed unsalvageable.

As I reported back then for the Minneapolis newspaper, George had trouble focusing through his tears as a giant John Deere backhoe ripped into the little house at 21 Lincoln Drive.

It was the house George grew up in. A few days earlier, he had been the one to hang a demolition order on the front door.

“It was like a little park, an oasis down here,” he said then. “It was great for a kid to grow up in a neighborhood with a dike and a river out back.

“I asked if I could work down here. I told everybody I wanted to be involved in this. It isn’t pleasant. But I knew it would help if I faced what had to be done.”

When he thought of his parents, he said, he thought of them in that house. As he filmed, he told of jumping off the roof into a snowbank after a mid-1960s blizzard – and disappearing.

He was angry, he said as his childhood home came down, and irritable, “not because I disagree with the need to do this, but … well, I don’t know why. But I was clear on wanting to be here.”

The backhoe operator swung his crane and dropped the iron scoop to gouge out another big chunk of wood and plaster. George filmed it all, blinking through tears.

“My father did a lot in that house,” he said, recalling home improvement projects. “Growing up here, you felt secure. You had so much confidence in the dike. … We used to joke about how high the river would have to get to top our dike.”

And now he knew: just over 54 feet. Flood stage is 28 feet.

In the years since, George drove a school bus, then a crew bus for a gas line. Later he held other jobs before signing on as a para-educator, or teacher’s aide.

“I went through the maze of agencies like everybody did,” he said of the dizzying days after the flood. “You did what you needed to do to move forward, to keep your sanity and sense of purpose.”

Some good came out of the disaster, he said, including development of the riverbanks with bike and running paths and boat ramps. “What we’ve done with the Greenway is wonderful,” he said.

And he recalls the spirit of recovery.

“In ’97, there was this community-wide trust,” he said. “Everybody greeted everybody. It was a cohesive kind of experience.”

There were disagreements, resentments, flares of impatience and waves of frustration. “But overall, we did a good job of recovery.”

Coming out of the pandemic will take time and test patience, too, he said. “With this, there’s been a little more disagreement, about masking and social distancing and all that. We haven’t been as cohesive.”

And for some people, recovery will never be complete.

“One thing we said about the flood: We didn’t lose a single life,” George said. “With the pandemic, there has been a lot of tension, isolation, and we have lost people – not only the loss of loved ones, but also not being able to be with them.

“But I think we’re coming out of it OK. I definitely think we’ll make it through this, too, and get back to a normal life.”

Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at crhaga@gmail.com.