© The Associated Press/The Duluth News-Tribune/Bob King
A car fell into a huge sinkhole in Duluth, Minn. on Wednesday, June 20, 2012.
Major flooding struck in and around Duluth on Wednesday after up to 10 inches of rain fell overnight across northeastern Minnesota, leaving neighborhoods isolated, zoo animals drowned and state parks closed.

Steady, torrential rain kept up into Wednesday morning, June 20, closing Interstate 35 and a tunnel into downtown Duluth. Police said sinkholes and washouts made travel dangerous.

Residents of the far west Duluth neighborhood of Fond du Lac, near the rising St. Louis River, were asked to leave their homes. Seventy people arrived at shelters opened by the Red Cross, officials said.

State emergency management officials set up an operations center in response to the flooding across Aitkin, Carlton, Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties, including the Duluth area.

Gov. Mark Dayton declared a state of emergency and directed the Minnesota National Guard to help the region cope with the disaster.

Dayton planned to travel to Duluth on Thursday morning.

There were no immediate reports of deaths or serious injuries, though an 8-year-old boy was swept about six blocks through a culvert near Duluth. The boy suffered scrapes and bruises but was fine, St. Louis County Undersheriff Dave Phillips said, calling it a "miracle out of this whole disaster."

Minnesota Department of Public Safety officials cited Duluth police reports that half of the Fond du Lac neighborhood was under evacuation and the town of Thomson was partially evacuated.

Officials in Carlton

20 miles south of Duluth were evacuating residents because of road damage and rising water. Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake said up to 170 people had been evacuated. Lake said the evacuations were not mandatory.

The Red Cross opened two evacuation sites in the area: First United Methodist Church in Duluth and the Carlton High School, though that site was later relocated to outside of Cloquet.

Duluth city offices, shut down early Wednesday, were scheduled to reopen by Thursday morning.

Employees and the public can monitor for updates.

Firefighters and police officers helped the Lake Superior Zoo staff track down animals lost when their enclosures flooded.

At the zoo, which is bisected by the Kingsbury Creek, flooding killed about a dozen animals in a barnyard exhibit and allowed the escape of two harbor seals and a polar bear.

The seals made it outside the zoo before they were recovered. The bear never left the zoo grounds and was tranquilized on site.

A spokeswoman for the zoo, which remained closed, said the flooding was unprecedented.

"In the 90 years we've been here, we've never had an incident like this," Holly Henry said.

Another zoo spokeswoman, Keely Johnson, said the zoo's donkey, goats and sheep perished. She said it's possible other animals drowned, as flooding on the grounds inundated other exhibits, such as the raven and vulture cages.

"Our barn keeper is devastated; she's traumatized, believe me," Henry said. "Our whole staff is upset. It's a horrible thing. We're a small zoo, so you get really attached to the animals."

Later Wednesday, the zoo said it planned to temporarily relocate the polar bear and seals to St. Paul's Como Zoo.

John Myers, a reporter at the Duluth News Tribune, said he arrived at work just after 4 a.m. and spent a couple of hours trying to drive through the city to survey the damage.
© The Associated Press/The Duluth News-Tribune/Bob King
Water flows down a damaged street in Duluth, Minn. on Wednesday, June 20, 2012.
He said he saw buckled pavement and sidewalks, impassable roads and standing water.

"When the rain finally stops and they figure out where the damage is, it's going to be very expensive to fix this mess," he said. "There's too much water too fast."

He said the hillside city is laced with dozens of streams that run toward Lake Superior and those streams were carrying more water than he's ever seen.

"The ground was too wet before the rain started," he said.

The deluge closed I-35 downtown -- a section that runs through a tunnel flooded -- and cut off low-lying neighborhoods on the west end of town.

The flooding forced the University of Minnesota-Duluth campus to close, along with the University of Wisconsin-Superior campus. And the Miller Hill Mall, left without electricity, was also shut down.

Even in Hermantown, uphill from Duluth, streets flooded, and there were reports of people stranded in their cars on flooded streets.

Jay Cooke and Savanna Portage state parks had road washouts and were closed until further notice, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

In Duluth, the city was using front-end loaders at intersections to clear debris, including chunks of pavement and branches.

"It's going to be a public works nightmare as they try to clean up," Myers said.

Mat Gilderman, a 35-year-old Duluth native, left for his job as a public affairs officer at Lake Superior College early Wednesday and labored to make it through town.

"It seemed like every turn I made the road was closed," Gilderman said. "You basically have to take back roads and kind of travel around the outskirts of the city and then make your way in if you want to get anywhere ... there is pretty much flooding everywhere."

He described streets as rivers with trees, rocks and concrete flowing down them. In some places, water was shooting into the sky from manholes.

"It honestly looks like a whale's blowhole, there is so much pressure," Gilderman said. "I've never seen anything like it."

Miraculously, Gilderman said, he and his wife's house had only a trickle of water in the basement and some standing water in their back yard, likely because their home sits on sloped land, he guessed. Blocks away, he said, yards have disappeared.

"They look like lakes," he said.

For now, he said the mood in his native city was one of excitement, save for those bailing water out of their houses, but he said he expects that will change soon.

"We've never seen anything like this so it's kind of fun and interesting, but it is going to cost a fortune to clean up," he said.

John Brewer, Sarah Horner and Dennis Lien contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.