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Syosset man is 'mass care chief' for Red Cross as Florida braces for Dorian

Sal Montoro of Syosset at his station in

Sal Montoro of Syosset at his station in the Red Cross command center Tuesday at Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando, Fla. Photo Credit: Sue Kohfeldt

Long Islander Sal Montoro waits in Florida nervously: Hurricane Dorian is coming, and he's the American Red Cross volunteer in charge of the disaster response for the entire state.

At his disposal are massive resources, from dozens of government-owned emergency response vehicles and forklifts in both Florida and Alabama to five mobile kitchens operated by the Southern Baptist Church. Each kitchen alone is a setup of three to four tractor-trailers stocked with groceries and outfitted with appliances.

Already, shelters are filled with at least 30,000 evacuees.

If Dorian strikes hard, Montoro can get 100,000 people fed right away. Give him two to three days and the number jumps to 500,000 a day. Four days out, a million get served.

The responsibility of being what the Red Cross calls "the mass care chief" isn't lost on Montoro, a Syosset resident who is in his 18th year of volunteering for the humanitarian nonprofit.

"It's frightening at times," said Montoro, 54, who landed Saturday in Orlando, where he headed to the Rosen Plaza Hotel, a shelter and a Red Cross command center. "I needed to step out . . . and call my wife to get grounded. It's the first time I'm ever running anything this large as a boss."

Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C., tapped Montoro to take the lead in Florida. A mass care chief — Montoro is the only one in New York State — can be asked to take charge anytime, anywhere.

To head the Dorian response, Montoro had to take a break from his full-time job as credit manager and salesman at Queens-based LeNoble Lumber and as a part-time manager at 388, an Italian restaurant in Roslyn. Both his employers pay him when he is away for Red Cross work.

For the past day or so, Montoro has had to play a wait-and-see game with Dorian: If the hurricane moved 20 miles one way, Florida might be spared the worst, but 20 miles the other way and all bets are off.

"I have a thousand things in my mind that I need to do," Montoro said late Monday as Dorian whipped the Bahamas with sustained winds of 185 mph.

Montoro has been at most of the biggest Red Cross hurricane responses over the years, from Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi to Harvey in Texas. He responds to emergencies on Long Island, such as house fires, often carrying debit cards to hand out to victims.

On Monday, Montoro ordered $65,000 in food supplies for Dorian relief but hopes he won't be pressed to use them.

"I pray we did that all as one great exercise and that it worked," he said.

How it all started

The Long Islander joined Red Cross shortly after helping with the 9/11 rescue effort at Ground Zero.

LeNoble had sent him and others down with lumber to help first responders shore up Ground Zero wreckage. One day, Montoro's hand somehow was slashed by a forklift. He found a Red Cross tent, where workers cleaned his wound and told him where to go for help — he eventually had to have 15 stitches at a hospital.

When the Red Cross team — volunteers from as far away as California — told him their help was free, Montoro was surprised. From then on, he was hooked on the Red Cross.

"I thought to myself, 'These people are incredible.' Six months later, I joined the Red Cross," he said.

Five days after Katrina made landfall in 2005, Montoro and several others arrived at a Mississippi shelter, filled with at least 2,300 evacuees. The local Red Cross volunteer, overwhelmed by the responsibility and the need to take care of his own ravaged home, immediately put the Long Islander in charge, Montoro recalled.

Why he does it

Montoro and other Red Cross volunteers cram into one car to save money, sleep in shelters and take care of everything from pet needs to health care. He spends his own money rather than using Red Cross funds while he is on a relief mission.

Friends often ask Montoro why he volunteers, why he puts himself through what he does.

The answer is simple: He has witnessed human nature at its best when Mother Nature is at her worst.

For example, just before he went down to help Katrina evacuees, LeNoble employees gave him $200, telling him to "try to find a good place for this money," Montoro recalled.

After arriving at the Mississippi shelter, he met a woman who became separated from her husband — rescuers had taken her to Mississippi and her husband to Texas.

"I don't know how to get to Texas," she told him.

Montoro bought her a bus ticket to Texas with his co-workers' $200.

"So many things like that say I made a difference," Montoro said. "I went there and done something."

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