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Alexandria couple shares their experience after tornado destroys their house

Dustin and Desiree Wiita, along with their four young children, were safe in the their basement under the stairwell in a storage space when the storm hit their neighborhood in northwest Alexandria on Thursday, May 11.

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Dustin and Desiree Wiita of Alexandria, lost not only both their vehicles that were parked in their garage, but most of their house when a tornado ripped through their neighborhood along South Darling Drive on Thursday, May 12, 2022.
Echo Press file photo
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ALEXANDRIA – Dustin Wiita had just finished putting his lawnmower in the garage. His wife, Desiree, who had gotten home from work a little later than normal, was outside playing with the couple’s four young children – ages 8, 6, 2 1/2 and 5 1/2 months.

The Alexandria family who lives along South Darling Drive noticed that the clouds were starting to roll in.

“There was a little clearing in the sky where it was that greenish, blueish color,” said Desiree.

It was 7:09 p.m. Thursday, May 12, when Dustin said he received a tornado warning alert on his phone. The family immediately went inside their home and headed for the basement to take shelter. They hung out under the stairwell in a storage space for what Desiree said felt like five minutes.

But in reality, it was mere seconds. And in those seconds, a tornado ripped through their house, leaving what Desiree calls “skylights” in just about every room. The roof was ripped off most of their home, the garage was flattened, windows were shattered and Dustin said he doesn’t have to worry about putting away the clean and folded laundry that was waiting for him on the couch.

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The couple, who will be celebrating their ninth wedding anniversary next month, said laughter is helping them get through this devastating time in their lives.

Hard to believe

When Dustin came out of the storage space in their basement and looked up the stairwell, all he saw was the sky and pieces of his house.

“I was kind of in shock and denial that this had happened,” he said. “It was so hard to believe.”

He also saw that the family couldn’t make it up their stairs as chunks of their house blocked the way.

Fortunately, the previous homeowners had installed egress windows and they were able to make their way to one of them.

Desiree said that if anyone is in the process of thinking about installing egress windows in their basement, to do it because, “It is so worth it!”

Although they were able to access the egress window, they still weren’t able to get out, however, because there was a hard plastic covering over it.

“I had to call my neighbors, Cole and Jen Sadlo, to help come get us out,” said Dustin, noting that while he was on the phone with Jen, Cole came rushing over, popped off the plastic and set it off to the side. “I handed my kids to him and he put them on the plastic as there was glass and debris all over the place. And I also grabbed the dog and got her out.”

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“It’s hard to believe we all got out safely,” said Desiree. “All of us, including the dog and our stupid goldfish — our kids’ beloved goldfish — made it out and our kids were pretty happy about that.”

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Looking through a broken window on the backside of a house owned by Dustin and Desiree Wiita of Alexandria, debris can be seen scattered around their living room and the roof is gone. A tornado hit their house along South Darling Drive shortly after 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 12, 2022.
Celeste Edenloff / Alexandria Echo Press

Cole took the baby, while Dustin grabbed the two oldest and Desiree grabbed the 2 1/2-year-old and they – Desiree in her socks and Dustin barefoot – raced through the scattered debris to Cole and Jen’s house.

The backyard, the couple said, was unrecognizable. Their shed was tipped over, there were so many trees down and debris everywhere. The couple said they had to zigzag through their yards to get to safety and that it felt like a war zone.

“It was loud,” said Desiree. “I couldn’t believe how loud it was. And it was the first time we heard that the sirens were going off.”

She added later that they never heard the classic freight train sound that is associated with tornadoes.

Dustin said it all happened so fast though – less than 10 minutes. The alert on his phone was at 7:09 p.m.and by 7:17 p.m. he was calling his neighbor to come help get them out of the house.

Amazing support

Dustin and Desiree couldn’t talk enough about the support they received throughout the last few days. And not only support for them, but for their children. They said their kids have handled all of this better than they thought.

Their 2 1/2-year-old son, when he saw some of the damage, said they could “fix it.” His mom said he was like Bob the Builder, which is an animated TV series about a building contractor who fixes things.

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“We can’t believe all the support we have received,” they both said, noting numerous times what great neighbors they have and what a great neighborhood they live in.

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Looking through a window of a home owned by Dustin and Desiree Wiita of Alexandria, a car seat for their baby can be seen. The seat is sitting among all the debris and pieces of their roof after a tornado ravaged their home on Thursday, May 12, 2022.
Celeste Edenloff / Alexandria Echo Press

Desiree said the couple is originally from Duluth and that after the storm, they had family, friends, coworkers and others from Duluth, Superior, Alexandria and Little Falls who all came together to help them.

“It was like our old life and new life collided in a beautifully and overwhelming way,” she said. “Everyone has been so supportive, so helpful. My own boss came out and helped,” said Desiree, who works at CentraCare in Long Prairie while Dustin works at Knute Nelson. He said his boss has reached out to him a couple of times to check up on him and that he never thought he’d ever hug so many of his neighbors.

“The way the community, our neighborhood, has come together is incredible,” said Dustin. Desiree added that even their mail carrier was in tears and so happy when she learned that the family made it through and no one was injured.

A downside to the whole ordeal – besides losing their house and 16 trees – was the steady stream of onlookers starting right away on Thursday night, said Desiree.

“There’s plenty of time after a few days to come and look and take pictures or whatever,” she said. “People need to remember this is our lives.”

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A vehicle covered in debris sits under a collapsed roof at the home of Dustin and Desiree Wiita of Alexandria. The family lost not only their home, but both vehicles that were parked in the garage after a tornado ripped through their neighborhood along South Darling Drive on Thursday, May 12, 2022.
Celeste Edenloff / Alexandria Echo Press

Next steps

Working with their insurance agent, Amy Christopherson with State Farm, Dustin and Desiree said they have temporary housing at Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center and are currently looking for a long-term solution.

They were able to take some things from their house – valuables, things of importance to them and some necessities – but other than that, their house and both their vehicles are a total loss.

As it stands right now, they do plan on rebuilding in the same location but that is going to take some time.

Family and friends have set up a GoFundMe page for them, www.gofundme.com/f/dustin-desiree-wiita-rebuilding-fund , as well as a donation option at their bank. Donations can be dropped off or mailed to Bell Bank, 1001 Broadway St., Alexandria, MN 56308 with checks made out to Dustin and Desiree Wiita Benefit Account.

“We are just taking it one day or sometimes, one minute at a time,” said Desiree, who shared a story about a cardinal nest they had recently found in their yard.

She said there were eggs in it and that she had taken some pictures of it. The eggs apparently hatched about a week ago and so when the storm happened, the family was worried that the cardinals were lost.

But they found the nest and the birds made it through just fine. In fact, Desiree said she saw the male bird and it looked like he was teaching the babies how to fly.

“Cardinals are signs that angels are looking down on us,” said Desiree, noting that there were some recent deaths in their family. “Those are our angels.”

Celeste Edenloff is the special projects lead and a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press. She has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in 2016 to once again report on the community she calls home.
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