One neighbor thought it was a thunder and lightning storm. Another said it was like a scene out of a movie.

Elmont residents were jolted awake early Tuesday to the sounds of electrical explosions that authorities said were caused by a neighbor who stole a huge boom-arm crane truck and drove it through the neighborhood, knocking down numerous utility poles and wires, causing a blackout.

LIPA trustee Matthew Cordaro likened the damage to that caused by severe weather.

"It's exactly like the kind of damage you get in a tornado," said Cordaro, previously chief executive of the Nashville Electric Service. "It's a path of utter destruction in a defined zone."

Nassau County police identified the suspect as Joel Grasman, 51, of Elmont, a 23-year veteran employee of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority New York City Transit system. Charges are pending.

Officials said Grasman stole a 66,000-pound Mack Truck from the MTA's Jamaica Avenue yard in Queens early Tuesday. A Long Island Power Authority spokesman, Mark Gross, said the driver used that truck to knock down at least one dozen utility poles, downing wires, ripping meters off the sides of homes, ripping out connectors to houses.

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Police said the damage included more than a half-dozen overhead traffic lights, and occurred along a route at least a mile long.

Grasman even knocked down lines on his own block, Kirkman Avenue, authorities said.

Neighborhood residents -- many without power -- were shocked by the damage.

"I woke up immediately," said Ruben Parra, a limousine service operator who lives on nearby Meacham Avenue, noting he was awakened just before 4 a.m. by explosions and flashes of light on the street. He thought it was thunder and lightning. Turned out, it was electrical explosions, caused by poles and wires being knocked down.

"I saw something flash," Parra said. "I saw the light pole [as it] went down.

"I thought, 'What the hell is going on?'" Parra said. "It was like lightning, explosions all over the place."

Parra said he ran out to the street in time to see the boom truck driving up the block.

"It was very dark, because all the lights went down," he said. "I went outside to look at it. I saw the poles going down. The guy went up and down [the blocks], left and right."

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Officials told Parra his power would be restored by nightfall. But Parra said he also was told he needs to hire an electrician to make other repairs not covered by LIPA.

On another block Robert Reichert, 76, said he was more fortunate. He has a gas generator that he purchased after superstorm Sandy, when he was without electricity for 13 days.

Reichert said he bought the generator because his wife, Dorothea, 72, depends on 24-hour oxygen, and that oxygen supply is electrically powered.

"My wife woke me up this morning, telling me, 'I have no oxygen,' " Reichert said, adding he got his generator up-and-running by 9 a.m.

"I expected this from a hurricane," he said. "We thought it was a lightning bolt that hit . . . You expect this from a movie."

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The subsequent repairs turned the neighborhood into a labyrinth of street closures, debris-cluttered streets, and downed power lines.

Heavy traffic jams encircled the area throughout the morning and early afternoon as utility crews closed streets so they could work.

Mark Sellitto, 37, of Meacham Avenue, spent the early afternoon sitting on his front steps with family and neighbors, watching LIPA crews work. He said he and his wife and 6-year-old daughter were awakened by a loud crash just before 4 a.m. that they thought sounded like a plane crash.

Their power, phone and cable remained out of service at 1 p.m., but all the commotion made for an exciting day, Sellitto said. He added that the damage to his home, where some wires were dislodged, was minimal.

"The key word would be overwhelming, but at the same time entertaining," Sellitto said.

Sellitto's wife, Michelle, 36, said there was nothing to do but relax, because power was out and it was impossible to leave the neighborhood because of road closures.

"We're just hanging out," she said. "Front row seats."

The Sellitto family's neighbor, Marion Brazeil, said she couldn't go anywhere even if she wanted to -- her car was blocked in the driveway by a utility truck. The work immobilized the neighborhood, but it had to be done, she said.

"Can't go anywhere around here," said Brazeil, who declined to give her age. "Hey, it's not raining."

Assemb. Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont), who lives near the scene, said the neighborhood has banded together despite the inconvenience, with many residents spending the day outside watching the repairs.

"People are in good spirits," Solages said, "and it's a nice day out."

With Mark Harrington and Aisha Al-Muslim