TOMS RIVER, New Jersey (Reuters) - Hurricane Irene swept along the New Jersey shore early on Sunday, knocking down trees, flooding streets and leaving thousands of people without electrical power.

Reports from the National Weather Service suggested that Irene fell short of the most dire predictions that it could drop up to a foot of rain and pack 75 mile per hour winds.

Along the shore, Atlantic City had 4.56 inches of rain as of early on Sunday, and Windsor, a suburb of Trenton, got 6.1 inches, the Weather Service said.

Wind in Tuckerton, New Jersey, in Ocean County, hit 69 mph, the Weather Service said.

"We dodged a bullet," said Police Chief David Wolfson of Margate, a seaside town just south of the state's gambling mecca, Atlantic City.

Irene was downgraded to tropical storm status on Sunday morning.

Nevertheless, Governor Chris Christie said in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the storm still covered half of the state and that some 250 roads were closed due to flooding.

He said he expects damages from Irene to be costly along the Atlantic coast and from inland river flooding.

"I've got to imagine that the damage estimates are going to be in the billions of dollars, if not in the tens of billions of dollars," Christie said.

He said state damage assessments along the coast would begin on Sunday but inland damage may not become obvious until river flooding subsides as late as Tuesday.

In Margate, the highest wind was clocked at 56 mph, the police chief said, and some sections of its major thoroughfare, Ventnor Avenue, were under water.

Margate authorities were waiting to see what the morning's high tide would bring, he addled, after which they will be able to assess what impact the hurricane had on the beach.

New Jersey's utility PS&G reported that about 233,000 customers were without power statewide.

State police rescued about 100 people from a senior citizen development in Buena Vista Township in Atlantic County overnight after the modular homes were surrounded by about a foot of water.

(Reporting by Dave Warner in Philadelphia, additional reporting by David Morgan in Washington. Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Editing by Peter Bohan)

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