Dibby Smith couldn't help but notice the peculiar morning rush-hour traffic as she drove back to her coastal Florida hotel recently with a car full of sleepy nurses.
"There's a whole convoy of power trucks -- 20 cherry pickers -- coming down I-95!" she exclaimed during a cell phone interview from her car.
Smith, an Arlington County nurse, had just finished a first 12-hour shift managing a hurricane shelter on Florida's east coast. The nurses were heading north to Cocoa, a few miles west of Cape Canaveral, to rest up in their hotel until the next shift.
Smith, 53, and dozens of other volunteers from Northern Virginia and other parts of the state -- including firefighters, police officers and residents -- were helping Floridians get back on their feet after hurricanes Charley and Frances. Many remembered the outpouring of support they received after disasters, both natural and man-made, including the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. They wanted to give something back.
Hurricane Floyd left Franklin, a small city in southeastern Virginia, under 12 feet of water for about a week in 1999. Last year, Hurricane Isabel knocked out power to the same region for nearly two weeks.
"People came from all over the country to help us during Floyd and Hurricane Isabel," said Patricia Winter, 54, of Smithfield, director of nursing for the Western Tidewater Health District near Norfolk Beach, who led the 27-member Virginia team. "I saw them work themselves ragged to get us back [on our feet]. I thought we need to pay some of that back."
Smith, a public health nurse supervisor, was one of five volunteers from the Alexandria Health Department who helped run a special medical needs shelter in the coastal town of Sebastian. They were recruited by the Virginia Department of Health to assist in relief efforts after Charley and Frances pummeled the region just three weeks apart.
Split into teams of 13 and 14 with night or day shifts, the Virginia group operated the shelter at Sebastian River High School in Indian River County with about 50 other volunteers from about a dozen states, including Michigan, Maine and Pennsylvania. The Virginia team left for Florida on Sept. 8 and returned Monday.
During the worst part of Hurricane Frances, about 1,000 people packed the high school, which is equipped with metal shutters for its windows, for nearly 24 hours, officials said. At one point, the Sebastian shelter served about 220 people with special medical needs, mostly the elderly who live at home with a caretaker and require oxygen or other electrical equipment, Winter said.
Other displaced residents included people with asthma, diabetes or renal failure, which required kidney dialysis. The high school was selected for the special shelter because it has emergency generators that can support the electricity requirements of sick residents if the power goes out.
"Wheelchairs and walkers and canes are the norm" for the shelter residents, most of whom are older than 65, Winter said.
"It's amazing to see people who are 80 put in this situation where they are sleeping in a cot six to eight inches off the ground," she said.
The residents often had trouble getting out of the cots by themselves, volunteers said. The cots, fabric suspended over three supports, were not comfortable, volunteers said, but were better than the alternative at shelters for the general population: the floor.
The high school's atmosphere was generally upbeat, with new friendships forming among shelter residents who shared meals in the school cafeteria and lived together in the gymnasium or hallways, some for more than a week. Some residents pushed each other around in their wheelchairs and were eager to express their gratitude, volunteers said.
"They say, 'You're all our angels' " to the nurses and other volunteers, Smith said.
For other shelter residents, some of whom were evacuated from their homes and had few clues about the outcome of Frances's damage, there were tense and uncertain days. Some clung tightly to what few possessions they had with them.
"People who don't have control of the rest of their lives want to have control of things that might be trivial to others -- my comb, my brush, my towel," said Tiyia Jean-Pierre, 31, an Alexandria Health Department nurse from Waldorf.
Volunteers said they did their best to offer familiar comforts, such as warm showers and clean clothes. Residents with arthritis or other conditions limiting their movement had to be helped off their cots and to the restroom.
The locker room showers required a firm and steady hand to push the water button. To remove that challenge for older residents, a few nurses wore swimsuits as they operated the showers for the residents.
The Virginia volunteers washed mountains of towels, blankets, sheets and personal clothing in the school's laundry machines, which are usually used for grimy football uniforms, Winter said. Such a feat was essential to maintain the health of people who were living in unusual conditions. It took about 48 hours of consecutive loads to finish the heap, she said. Volunteers also sanitized the entire gymnasium and equipment after a resident got pneumonia, Winter said.
At the end of the day, many of the volunteers, who said they were just doing their job, looked to the shelter residents as sources of inspiration.
"They're a really good example of the remarkable human ability to withstand crisis," Winter said.