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3 dead after heavy rains wash out Wisconsin road

Record downpours and flooding continued across Minnesota and Wisconsin on Thursday, forcing more evacuations and claiming the lives of three people who drove off a washed out road.
Image: Cars in washed out road
Crews remove two vehicles that drove off a washed out road near Neillsville, Wis., early Thursday.Clark County Sheriff's Department
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Record downpours and flooding continued across Minnesota and Wisconsin on Thursday, forcing more evacuations and claiming the lives of three people who drove off a washed out road.

In Minnesota, residents around Moose Lake and Willow River were being evacuated, the Duluth News Tribune reported. The number of evacuees was not available but at least 30 percent of the community around Moose Lake was impacted by flooding, the town's administrator stated.

Across the border in Wisconsin, three bodies were found early Thursday inside two vehicles that had driven into a 50-foot-wide ditch left from a washed out county road.

A vehicle with two people inside drove in first, the Clark County Sheriff's Department said, and then the second vehicle fell in at some point.

Crews used a crane to pull one car off the other and then pull them back up. The victims were later identified as Thomas J. Jurceka, 56, and Susan Jurceka, 57, both of Milwaukee, and Mary A. Malinowski, 24, of Thorp.

In Duluth, 250 residents evacuated a neighborhood Wednesday after the heaviest rains in more than a century ripped up roads and flooded the Lake Superior Zoo.

Damage estimates were still being calculated. The costs of repairing public facilities alone could reach $80 million, the Duluth News Tribune reported.

Zoo staff scrambled before dawn to find animals that escaped from their enclosures in the flood. Workers safely recovered two seals and a polar bear, but about a dozen animals from the barnyard exhibit perished under water.

Furniture from zoo exhibits lay scattered, and water marks showed flooding that reached as high as 14 feet off the ground in places, said Peter Pruett, the zoo's director of animal management.

"We filled up like a bathtub, and it should not have been that way," Pruett said. "Everything was going so fast. You have a plan, but your plan doesn't take into account the biblical proportions."

Pruett learned of the disaster with an early morning phone call alerting him to a seal on a city street. He went to the scene and found the harbor seal, Feisty, corralled by three police cars. Pruett got a piece of plywood and nudged Feisty along, about a half a block, back to the zoo.

As he was walking with Feisty, he knew her escape could mean trouble, "because if the seal's out, the polar bear very well could be out too," he said.

Zoo employees were called in and began searching for animals in the darkness. One employee found the lions and tigers were still in their exhibits — a relief. But Berlin, the polar bear, wasn't in sight.

"A dangerous animal is out and it's the middle of the night, and you cross your fingers and you pray to whomever you want to pray to that she's still there and not terrorizing some other place," Pruett said.

Thankfully, a zookeeper spotted the bear about 5 a.m. atop the rock wall that encloses her exhibit. The zoo vet and a police officer approached her in a squad car, enabling the vet to safely shoot her with a tranquilizer gun.

He said Berlin was groggy and dirty from her ordeal a few hours later but otherwise OK.

After the bear was subdued, zoo officials got a call that Vivian, the other harbor seal, was about a half mile away on a trail. Officials picked her up safely too.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals urged Duluth to charge the zoo with animal cruelty, noting that flooding had been forecast and that the zoo had flooded as recently as 2010.

Aross the city, it may take time for the damage to become fully apparent, said Mayor Don Ness.

"We're concerned about washouts and sinkholes, and they'll likely show themselves in the coming days. ... The water is rushing so hard that we're concerned about the integrity of the roadbeds being washed out," he said.

Some 7.2 inches of rain fell on Duluth on Tuesday and Wednesday, breaking the two-day record of nearly 6.7 inches set on July 20-21, 1909.

An 8-year-old boy who was swept about six blocks through a culvert in Duluth suffered some scrapes and bruises -- a "miracle out of this whole disaster," Louis County Undersheriff Dave Phillips said.