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LONG BEACH, New York (Reuters) - Hurricane Irene lashed New York's Long Island, submerging some beaches entirely and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without electricity, officials and residents said on Sunday.
Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm on Sunday morning after marching up the East Coast, leaving at least 11 dead, as many as 3.6 million households without electricity and forcing the cancellation of more than 11,000 flights on its advance.
Winds were estimated to have topped 70-90 mph at about 10 a.m. when the eye of the 300-mile wide storm moved through Long Island. The Long Island Power Authority said more than 450,000 customers of the 1.1 million on the island were without power.
Among the worst-hit towns were Long Beach and Freeport, both with serious flooding, as well as Oyster Bay, Hempstead and Brookhaven, home of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
At Long Beach, churning waves drove over the boardwalk and on to city streets. A two-story lifeguard tower came loose and was smashed against the boardwalk by the ferocious surge before the structure was pushed up onto the boardwalk.
"We did suffer pretty much complete destruction of our lifeguard headquarters. The ocean picked it up and slammed into the boardwalk," Long Beach City Manager Charles Theofan said.
There was widespread flooding of homes, especially on the west end of Long Beach. In one west end home, a sedan parked in a basement garage was one-third submerged in water.
"I was pretty scared," said Orlando Cruz, 39, a construction worker who lives a block from the boardwalk with his girlfriend and two young children, saying the winds were so strong he feared his windows might blow out.
Michelle Axelrod, a chiropractor who lives in Lido Beach, a community adjacent to Long Beach, said some neighbors made the most of it after the storm passed.
"Lido had water in the streets -- it was high enough that friends were kayaking down the street for fun," she said.
On Lawson Boulevard in nearby Oceanside the flooding was so high that some people rode jetskis on the street.
Waves also surged across roads in Montauk on the eastern end of Long Island. In Hampton Bays a sailboat was blown ashore and sat in the front yard of a house.
In Southampton, neighbors were out checking on each other's properties, some getting around on canoes, others on paddle boats and kayaks. One man, Norm Stump, said at the peak of the flooding near his Southampton home the water was chest high.
Jim Nolan, a 55-year-old architect, lives on the shore of a lagoon on the southern shore of Long Island, at Copiague. He had a busy night taking care of his 34-foot cabin cruiser tied to the dock in front of his property. The lines snapped several times during the night as winds raged.
"About 3 O'clock two snapped. Two snapped about four or five o'clock, and one snapped half an hour ago," Nolan said at mid-morning, adding that the winds remained very strong even though the rain had passed.
"It was nice and warm so I put my bathing suit on and went out there to work on it with my son," Nolan said.
"It was a bit scary when it was dark, because the wind was so powerful," he said, adding that low-lying neighborhoods in Copiague were under about a foot of water on Sunday morning.
"I took a drive around my neighborhood just now but there are so many downed trees I couldn't get very far," Nolan said.
Fire Island, a 30-mile long car-free sand bar that runs parallel to Long Island and features million dollar beach homes, was hit hard, according to Fire Island News.
The communities of Ocean Beach and Fire Island Pines, popular among gay New Yorkers, were among those deluged by sea water. The newspaper said residents would only be able to return to Fire Island, which was under mandatory evacuation, on Tuesday at the earliest.
Fears that the Long Island Sound, on the north of the island, would surge over the beaches and into waterfront homes appeared to be unfounded.
On the Port Washington beach adjoining the recently demolished Land's End mansion -- said to have been F. Scott Fitzgerald's inspiration for Tom Buchanan's house in the Great Gatsby -- the water was high and lapping at the edge of the grounds of the waterfront multimillion dollar homes.
John Miller of the Long Island Red Cross said about 30 shelters on Long Island housed about 4,500 people overnight.
"The eye of the storm has passed the island and the worst is behind us," he said.
Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano said flooding left many roads impassable and that he remained concerned of further flooding during the evening high tide.