DULUTH - Roiling waters fueled by torrential rains made history across northeastern Minnesota Wednesday, buckling roads, displacing residents, drowning zoo animals and destroying property on a stretch of Lake Superior's North Shore.
Overnight downpours, dumping as much as 10 inches of water in some parts of Duluth and surrounding areas, created the worst flash floods in more than a century, officials said. Although rains had subsided by midafternoon Wednesday, forecasters were holding their breath that Mother Nature wouldn't deliver more by morning, compounding the misery of a region in desperate need of drying out.
"The damage to both the public and private property is going to be extensive," Duluth Mayor Don Ness said, adding that the city likely will need help from the federal government to clean up the mess from the heaviest two-day rainfall in nearly 150 years.
Ness said the damage in Duluth alone will easily run into the "tens of millions of dollars, if not more." He added that about 10 percent of the city's streets -- or well over 50 miles of pavement -- were damaged or destroyed by rushing water that eroded much of the earth beneath road surfaces.
"It'll likely take us weeks, if not months, to fully understand the extent of the damage," he said.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who plans to visit the area Thursday morning, issued an executive order Wednesday declaring a state of emergency for the popular tourist region and three other counties hit hard by recent storms. Ness also declared a state of emergency for Minnesota's fourth-largest city.
As of Wednesday night, authorities reported no serious injuries, but roads and property in Duluth and throughout much of the Arrowhead had taken such a beating that officials worried about public safety in the days to come.
In one harrowing tale shortly after noon, an 8-year-old boy fell into a culvert in Proctor, was swept away by rushing water and washed up about a half mile away. He popped out crying and with only a cut to his head.
"How he survived it is unbelievable," said Jim Hansen, Duluth police spokesman. "I'm not sure how he came up for air."
Ness said that by late Wednesday, authorities had heard of similar "close calls" after people got too close to the raging water or sinkholes.
"That's our greatest public safety threat," Ness said. "We're trying to be as vigilant as we can so that we don't have that catastrophe. Because everywhere you look, there is potential for tragedy."
Dan Miller, a spokesman for the National Weather Service in Duluth, said the rain started in the area shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesday and poured heavily and steadily for nearly 18 hours.
He said "six or seven clusters" of thunderstorms passed through the region with only a few short breaks.
At one point Wednesday, forecasters predicted more. But by late in the day, the feared front had not materialized.
"By and large, it looks as though the heavy rain has mercifully ended and we'll have a few days to dry out," Miller said. "The weather pattern for the next five to seven days looks mostly dry. With no additional precipitation, it looks like the water will have a day or two here to work its way into the system."
Miller said the area's rivers should crest at or above record levels Thursday through Saturday before the water begins to recede.
"Hopefully, that will give people a chance to evaluate any damage and start repairs," he said.
Ness said he was notified of the seriousness of the flooding about 5 a.m. Wednesday and saw it for himself about two hours later as he drove through swollen city streets on his way to City Hall.
"Once the rain falls on top of the hill it all rushes downhill and picks up a tremendous amount of momentum," he said. "Just the volume and the rate in which it is moving downhill has put a tremendous stress on" highways, city streets and sewers.
Not long after the deluge began, some of the city's streets began to buckle and cave. Nearly 250 people had to leave their homes in the Fond du Lac neighborhood in far west Duluth because of the rising St. Louis River. About 300 households also lost power, according to Minnesota Power. And the Lake Superior Zoo was in shambles, as 13 animals died and others escaped their exhibits because of the rising water.
Duluth City Hall and the University of Minnesota Duluth campus closed, as did the Miller Hill shopping mall, up the hill from downtown Duluth. Canal Park, Duluth's prime tourist area, was largely open for business, though some hotels reported cancellations.
Throughout the day, residents gathered on bridges and watched as once-composed creeks transformed to rushing rivers.
The scene along a stretch of lower Vermilion Road was reminiscent of earthquake damage -- a street eroded, jagged edges of pavement jutting to the sky, sidewalks collapsed by sinkholes.
"The power of it is amazing," said Sandy Thompson, one of many people who flocked to the Fourth Street bridge overlooking Duluth's Chester Creek. "I've been to Niagara Falls. This is almost as loud."
The scene was just as dramatic outside the city.
Sections of Hwy. 210 near Duluth were washed out. Portions of Hwy. 61 north of the city along the scenic North Shore also were sliced up by raging creeks, causing roads to buckle or collapse. Mudslides also posed a danger throughout the region.
"This water is just raging," said Beth Petrowske, a Minnesota Department of Transportation spokeswoman in Duluth. "This is a very, very dangerous situation up here."
More than 60 roads were closed throughout the day in and around Duluth, and by Wednesday night, authorities reiterated earlier pleas to residents and tourists asking them not to drive in the area unless necessary.
Shortly after noon, officials in Carlton, about 20 miles south of Duluth, tried to evacuate the town because of road damage and rising water. At one point Wednesday, nearly 40 campers and 20 residents had shown up at a shelter at the local high school after being advised to leave their locations. By mid-afternoon, the shelter was being moved to a location near Cloquet. Jay Cooke State Park was closed, as was Savanna Portage State Park west of Cloquet.
Streets in Superior, Wis., also flooded, forcing authorities to detour traffic. A landfill in the city closed, and the city's Parks and Recreation programs were canceled for the day.
Karen Anderson, director of community relations for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, said the district sewer system was overwhelmed by the raging water.
Anderson, who lives in Superior, said flooding was so bad by 10 a.m. that she was "stuck at home" working off her cell phone because she was unable to drive to her office in Duluth.
She said she lives across the street from a creek that by mid-morning, "is now a river that is running through my yard."
At one point, Internet and cell-phone service went out in Two Harbors and elsewhere in Lake County. It was later restored.
"It's pretty difficult to get around up here right now," said Miller, of the Weather Service. "Just about everywhere you turn there is a road closed or washed out.
"There is a mass migration every Friday afternoon from the Twin Cities and St. Cloud to this part of the state, but this weekend will not be a routine trip. It's going to take weeks and months to repair the damage that has occurred."
Freelance writer Mike Oakes contributed. Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425 Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751 Chris Havens • 612-673-4148