As a massive hurricane bears down on the East Coast, the Red Cross (search) is issuing an emergency plea for donations.

Hurricane Isabel (search) could come ashore Thursday somewhere between South Carolina and New Jersey with the Outer Banks of North Carolina near the middle of the expected track.

The Red Cross provides shelter, food and other aid after disasters, but the agency reports that its Disaster Relief Fund is nearly empty.

Alan McCurry, chief operating officer for the Red Cross, said the balance in the Disaster Relief Fund (search) fluctuates as money comes in and is spent, but "if you're driving down the road and the gas gauge is bouncing off zero, then it's time to get some gas."

McCurry said the Red Cross likes a balance of $50 million in the relief fund. He declined to specify the current balance.

Donations have been down sharply, the Red Cross reports, a situation it blames on various factors including the rough economy. From July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003, the Red Cross spent $114.3 million but took in only $39.5 million.

Donations can be made by calling 1-800-HELP-NOW, via the Internet at www.redcross.org, at Coinstar machines, at local Red Cross offices or by sending checks to the American Red Cross, P O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C., 20013.