Kiwis living in New York were preparing for an unprecedented lockdown last night as the vast Hurricane Irene roared its way up the east coast of the United States.

The freak tropical storm - due to hit the city at 10am today - has already shut the city's subway and prompted warnings for two million people to seek higher ground.

Experts warned that the hurricane was still a Category 2 and could wreak havoc even though Irene's strength had waned after reaching land.

One News US correspondent Tim Wilson, whose Manhattan apartment is away from where the worst flooding is expected, was still prepared for a crisis and hoped city authorities were too.

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"The storm is like a once-in-a-generation storm," he said.

"The city is just not built for it and the wind increases with height."

Wilson said New York politicians had learned from previous American disasters and any failure to prepare this weekend would make Irene "like Katrina for white people".

Wellington musician Gemma Gracewood, who lives in Brooklyn, said growing up in the earthquake-conscious capital had prepared her for natural disasters. "I've got plenty of gin. But I've got water and batteries too."

Her friend Kate Orgias moved to Brooklyn two months ago from Auckland. Orgias said New Yorkers were heading to the bars "for one last hurricane drink".

"It seems like everyone is preparing for a bit of a party. It'll be lockdown tonight."

Orgias was concerned by rumours looting might break out when Irene struck.

She navigated huge crowds earlier to buy canned food, candles, chips and other non-perishable food.

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"Last night we went to a supermarket and it had queues going right out the door."

Orgias said her neighbours had interesting priorities. "They bought dog nappies. After all, you can't take a dog out for a walk in a hurricane."

She said her Brooklyn neighbourhood was a haven for Kiwis on their OEs.

"It's full of life. New York seems to be the new London."

Across the East River, architect Chris Barker, originally from Devonport, was preparing for today's monster storm.

He already had emergency food supplies but expected a "frantic" scene as people rushed to buy essentials before the subway's shutdown.

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Barker said shutting down the vast, complex subway system would take city authorities about eight hours.

He would avoid Irene's onslaught thanks to a friend's wedding this weekend in Washington DC.

The Kiwi Club of New York's annual picnic, meant to be held today, was cancelled for the first time in 25 years. The picnic usually included gumboot throwing, a lolly scramble, a North vs South Island tug-of-war and a Kiwi-style barbecue.