NEW YORK — The rain started to taper off, the sun began to come out of hiding and then with a sudden ferocity, dirty sea water poured into the New York coastline, sweeping up motorists who raced for safety.

Save for a few motorists and the homeless, the beachfront beachside strip of Coney Island was deserted on Sunday morning after sweeping evacuation orders by New York authorities in preparation for Hurricane Irene.

Many residents had earlier voiced cynicism about the evacuation, and the skies appeared to clear over Coney Island. But at 8:45 am (1245 GMT), the water level rose by the second, bringing sudden chaos to the quiet streets.

An ocean of dirty sea water -- along with tree branches, discarded paper bags and other litter -- gushed through from the beach, the site of amusement rides and the Nathan's hot dog stand famed for its July 4 eating competitions.

Roads that appeared dry and safe seconds earlier came underwater, with the few motorists on the road forced to make split-second decisions on which way to move, trying to guess which streets were on higher ground, and for how long.

Several drivers who had been traveling peacefully were forced to get out and trudge into waist-deep water to push along their cars, looking feverishly for the best exit from a neighborhood suddenly under water.

An AFP team made a quick turn off Coney Island's Mermaid Avenue to find that the water was on the chase. The motorist put the foot on the gas and found higher land with moments to spare, the smelly sea water already seeping into the passengers' windows.

On Coney Island, virtually everyone was off the streets except police and five homeless people who usually live on subway trains, which in an unprecedented step were closed.

But within an hour, the water levels had receded, all people appeared safe and the main evidence of the flood was a sooty trail of bottles and other debris. New Yorkers, true to form, responded largely with shrugs.

"They shouldn't have evacuated everyone. Now some people might have thousands of dollars in damages and they weren't around to stop it," said Joe Perota, who was out walking his dog shortly after the storm surge.

"They need to think about the weather and not just look at satellites," he said.

Jose Pabon, who is originally from Puerto Rico, was not excited as he came downstairs from his Coney Island home and saw a still-flooded side street.

"Back in Puerto Rico, the whole city could be closed down for days," he said.

Similar scenes, some more severe, were witnessed across the New York region as it was clobbered with its first hurricane in years. In the ritzy Hamptons area of eastern Long Island, television footage showed waves pushing up against walls of big beachfront houses.

Authorities took extra precautions on Battery Park, on the southern tip of Manhattan next to the major institutions of the world's financial capital.

The water rushed onto the boardwalk but it soon went down, the shadow of the Statue of Liberty visible on the horizon.

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