Long Island's American Red Cross chapters are seeking more volunteers to improve staffing of shelters if a hurricane hits the region.

The Nassau and Suffolk chapters have about 350 volunteers each, enough to provide skeleton staffing at the 25 designated shelters in each county, officials say.

While all of the shelters are rarely mobilized simultaneously, the Red Cross wants to double its capacity for housing displaced people on the Island from 60,000 to 120,000 and reduce the dependence on volunteers from outside the region. And that will require at least another 700 volunteers.

So the Suffolk chapter held a media event Monday in Melville to kick off a recruitment campaign. Chapter chairman David D'Orazio, a volunteer himself, was joined by representatives of the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association and the firm that runs the Miss Long Island beauty pageant, which will help publicize the campaign and provide volunteers at the shelters.

"We depend on volunteers," D'Orazio said, adding that only 4 percent of Red Cross personnel across the country are paid. He said that to fully staff all 25 shelters the organization would need at least 1,200 volunteers. "It will be even a greater need as we identify more shelters in coming years," he said.

D'Orazio said the number of volunteers has remained constant in recent years but recruiting has become harder. "There's been a drop in volunteerism, because more people are out there trying to make a living," he said.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Sam Kille, spokesman for the Nassau chapter, said in a phone interview that "we can always use more volunteers. We have enough to run our shelters, but they would be bare-bones." He added that the national organization can deploy 50,000 people to a disaster area if necessary, but it would take time for them to mobilize and travel here.

"For at least three days it would be the responsibility of the local Red Cross to provide relief," D'Orazio said.

Kille said more timely help could come from local partner groups that have agreed to provide volunteers. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, for example, has agreed to make its nearly 1,000 midshipmen available and has already provided them with training on how to run a shelter.

While new volunteers often materialize during a disaster, they are much more productive if trained in advance. "It's always best to have people locally trained to step right in," D'Orazio said. "Your response is much greater and faster."