Duluth couple endures tsunami on the riverROBIN WASHINGTON: Richard Vitullo and his wife, Perry, share on Water Street in Fond du Lac. They were the neighborhood’s last unevacuated residents on Saturday, even with the St. Louis River turning their back deck into a pier.
They were high school sweethearts. He lived inland a bit, on East Eighth Street in Duluth’s East Hillside. She grew up on Park Point, in a family with close, and haunting, ties to the water.
“We went to the prom together. Then we went our separate ways,” Richard Vitullo said from the home he and his wife, Perry, share on Water Street in Fond du Lac.
They were the neighborhood’s last unevacuated residents on Saturday, even with the St. Louis River turning their back deck into a pier. The conversation took place by phone — “All the electricity and water is fine,” Richard said, “the only thing we don’t have is sewer” — after an ill-fated attempt to talk to them over the blaring fans of an airboat.
“We’re doing just fine. We just elected not to leave and to do what we can here,” he went on about their continued homesteading, made possible by resupply visits from Perry’s son, Hal Andrew, in his canoe.
“He’s keeping us in beer and cigarettes and essentials,” Perry joked. “If it hadn’t been for him, we’d have accepted the Coast Guard’s offers to leave.”
For their part, authorities are allowing them to stay.
“We check on them every four hours,” Capt. Tom Crossmon of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Rescue Squad said, driving the boat close to their house.
“If they give us a thumbs-up, they’re good.”
The Vitullos give a thumbs-up, and Crossmon motors on.
“We’re winning all the disaster competitions!” Perry says afterward.
If she sounds like a contestant in a reality show, that’s what she said it felt like at first. But the disaster that hit them wasn’t the flood.
“The tsunami is what did us in,” Richard said — a word that would make Northlanders check their hearing until looking up at the high mud cliffs across the river from the Vitullos’ house.
“The big part of that hill collapsed and came down, trees and all,” Richard said. “When that hit the water, it hit like a tsunami wave. We had several small ones but then we had a 5-foot wave come across.
“It blew in the side of the garage wall facing the river. It moved everything, including my wife’s car. It blew out the other wall. We have a second garage across the street. It went all the way over there and blew out the garage door and the back.”
It also may have come close to taking out Perry.
“I was sitting on the couch that had the back to the windows facing the river. You can hear when there’s going to be a mud slide — it’s like a gravel truck dumping,” she said. “I looked and I saw the splash. I wasn’t scared. I acted like I was watching the Discovery Channel. I went into scientific mode, like, ‘Oh, isn’t this interesting?’ I did not realize I was sitting inches away from a piece of glass and this gigantic wave of water.”
When it hit, it shattered one of the panes of their bay window — but not the one she was sitting under, she said.
“It blew the glass all the way across the house,” she said. “It just was like an explosion. That’s the point that I realized, ‘God is very, very good to me. He takes care of stupid people!’” she said, now laughing about it.
They also joke about not having flood insurance, like most Duluthians. Part of that decision comes from their house — which Perry’s parents moved to after leaving Park Point — being the highest point on the peninsula, they said.
“I told my husband you don’t have to worry about getting flood insurance because it’s almost impossible for it to flood. But if you can find tsunami insurance, that’s the danger to this house,” she said, adding that it has been hit before, back to when her parents lived there, but never with such strong rains.
“Normally, you get a wave that goes halfway, three-quarters across the yard,” she said.
The house and river have other memories; one in Perry’s family folklore. The tale of the near-drowning of her great-great-grandmother in Germany passed down the years to her mother, who at 87 went driving to the dog groomer’s on April 16, 2003.
“It was pouring rain and foggy and she disappeared. We looked in every gully. We told police we think she might have driven into the river.”
Six days later, Barbara Schroer’s body was found in her Ford Escort in 12 feet of water; a death, Perry says, that may have been a kinder way for her mother to die compared to a lingering illness.
Still, its telling leads her to put her own troubles in perspective.
“Compared to my mother drowning, the tsunamis are hardly anything.”
And what turn of events brought a young man from the East Hillside to a St. Louis River lawn chair in the wake of a tsunami — by way of several years in Florida, no less?
“I would check the News Tribune on the computer,” said Richard, explaining he saw the obituary for Perry’s husband close to the time of his wife’s passing.
“When I retired, I decided I’m going to come to Duluth for the summer. When I got in town, I called her. We got together, talked a little, took a tour of the town again, and got married two years ago. We’re having a ball. We’re just loving it.”
Or as Perry puts it: “We haven’t turned on each other yet!”
And if tsunamis and the river and its trials, tales and ghosts haven’t separated them, nothing will.
Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at email@example.com.