It's not that the central and northern portions of the east coast of North America never see hurricanes. It's just that we in the Northeast don't see them that often. The last one was in 1999, and the last bad one was in 1938, a deadly one that caused damage that can still be seen in the form of missing barrier islands and reshaped coastlines.
That means many of us on the Eastern seaboard are wildly unprepared for the main threats of a hurricane: high winds, torrential rains and / or a storm surge from the sea. And Hurricane Irene, forecast to be at least a Category 2 storm and already unusually large, is now lumbering toward us, gathering strength from warm ocean waters, at 21 kilometers per hour.
Hurricanes are powerful tropical cyclones, capable at their worst of winds in excess of 250 kilometers per hour and a storm surge of more than five meters. At Category 2 Irene would only boast winds less than 110 kph and a storm surge of roughly 2 meters—still more than enough to swamp crowded coastlines (as you can see with this NOAA overlay map).
So how to survive such a storm? Here are some tips from the Federal Emergency Management Administration and my own local government: make sure drains and gutters are clear, put together a disaster supply kit (batteries and water are key) and secure loose objects likely to fly around in heavy wind like, I don't know, lawn furniture. FEMA even has flood maps for many localities, and New York City has prepared its own version [pdf].
There's a lot of us living in the areas likely to be inundated (including myself, since I reside in Gowanus, a low-lying patch of ground around a canal that is one of the nation's newest Superfund sites). It could be worse. We could be New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority, which has to pump water out of the subways—even on days when it isn't raining.
Of course, all this hoopla may not matter. Irene could weaken or get pushed out to sea. But—as with climate change—it's better to be safe than sorry. Or, take a lesson from the Boy Scouts: be prepared.