Irene a rare storm that could devastate NYC

NEW YORK - We've known for a long time that New York City is vulnerable to a hurricane, and as Irene bears down, the city is preparing for the worst, CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller reports.

At the Coney Island amusement park, thrill seekers got in some last minute rides Thursday, but an evacuation order for the entire area could be coming soon.

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Billy Burke has worked at a Coney Island restaurant for 29 years. He's never seen a hurricane before.

"They're talking about 20-foot waves. If that happens this place will be underwater," Burke said.

Coney Island could be Irene's first stop in New York City as the storm rolls over the 5 million people living in Queens and Brooklyn.

Parts of Lower Manhattan lie just a few feet above sea level, and any kind of storm surge, especially during high tide, could be devastating.

"If a Category 2 hurricane hit New York City, it would depend on the time and the tide and various other things -- but it would be weeks or months before the city got back to normal," said Nicholas Coch, a hurricane expert at the City University of New York.

That's because the city lies in the center of a geographical right angle between New Jersey and Long Island. Irene could push water into that corner -- with no place to go but New York's tunnels, streets and sidewalks.

"Every 75 years the Northeast gets a major hurricane. It doesn't take a major hurricane to do major damage," Coch said.

That's the fear in New Jersey. Hurricane Irene is following roughly the same path as Hurricane Donna, which pounded the Jersey shore in 1960.

A massive amount of development has taken place since then in places like Long Branch, where a brand new condominium and retail complex sits right on the ocean. The hope there is that new construction can hold up to the storm.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has already told people to stay away from the shore this weekend. The whole Northeast is threatened, and flooding and power outages could happen as far north as Maine.

  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley", "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood". She joined CBS News in 2004.