Rescue specialists, emergency managers, cooks and counselors headed to the worst-hit areas of the Gulf Coast yesterday, and church groups, merchants and students collected cash to send as the Washington region stepped up its response to Hurricane Katrina's devastation.

It's the beginning of what local and national organizers hope will be a sustained outpouring of support for a nearly unprecedented U.S. relief effort.

"They've lost their houses. They are very frustrated, and some of them are desperate, because they don't know what they're going back to," said Patricia Myers-Hayer, 53, of Alexandria, who was in Little Rock yesterday loading supplies onto an ambulance-size emergency truck to be ferried to Louisiana.

Just days away from her job leading a cataloguing team at the Library of Congress, Myers-Hayer is among those facing the grim accounting of Hurricane Katrina's victims: the elderly in need of medicine, the teacher who no longer has a school and the many without homes. Her group kept being stopped by refugees lured by Red Cross insignias.

Even in its infancy, the range of local giving and volunteering has encouraged relief organizers. In Woodbridge, the Potomac Nationals will donate 50 percent of gate ticket sales for three games against the Winston-Salem Warthogs to hurricane relief. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington has asked 140 parishes to take up a special collection at all Masses this month for Catholic aid agencies in the affected region. Maryland hospitals have made available 1,400 beds for patients who can be transferred. A search team from Montgomery County and a squad from Virginia have begun looking for survivors in three hard-hit Mississippi counties.

"In a small way, I am trying to reach out," said Darlene Mathis, owner of Collectibles Gallery, a Georgetown interior design boutique, who plans to give 10 percent of her revenue over the next two weeks to the American Red Cross. It was the "many, many faces I've seen on television over the last two days" and thoughts of how fortunate she feels as a minority store owner in Georgetown that helped inspire her to act, Mathis added.

"Most of my customers are very caring and giving people," she said. "Why not use my space to do something?"

Government officials challenged a broad array of residents to get involved.

Speaking to a gathering of state officials, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) said yesterday that he was asking state employees and all residents to donate cash and blood, "probably in that order," to assist the victims of Katrina.

Ehrlich said he will sign an executive order sending 25 state health department doctors and 23 nurses to Louisiana. That's in addition to 100 Maryland National Guard military police, urban search-and-rescue squads from Montgomery and Baltimore counties and several county emergency managers.

"It may be a state far from Maryland, but they're Americans, they're human beings, and they need our help now," Ehrlich said.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) declared a limited state of emergency to activate the state's emergency operations center to coordinate relief efforts. They included sending a state police helicopter with a hoist and two pilots, and preparing to accept homeless young people into the commonwealth's schools and universities, if necessary.

A Virginia National Guard engineering battalion that includes bridge builders and 36 Virginia Department of Transportation road repair teams are also ready for deployment, according to Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls.

Cameron Ballantyne, a spokesman for Red Cross chapters in the Washington area, said the response of residents has been heartening.

"It's really cool, because no matter what the disaster, be it a local house fire or something like this or the tsunami of last year, they are always ready to open their checkbooks," he said.

Area chapters have sent their eight emergency response vehicles south, and organizers are looking for volunteers to cover phone banks to help frightened relatives try to locate loved ones. They also are holding training sessions to ready more volunteers to be rushed to badly damaged areas. "It's kind of a baptism-by-fire plan because we need the manpower," Ballantyne said.

Religious leaders also called on their congregants' kindness.

Bishop C.L. Long, pastor of Scriptural Cathedral in the District, used his daily AM radio broadcast to ask people across the Washington area to bring nonperishable food, household items and water to his church to aid in the relief effort.

"We have a tractor-trailer, vans and cars that we plan to fill up with food, baby food, clothing and household items," said Long, who plans to ferry the items to the affected states.

"Wherever they go, especially the people in New Orleans, we plan to be there," Long said.

At Okra's Louisiana Bistro, a popular Cajun spot in downtown Manassas, the donation plans came together amid the wafting scent of gumbo and etouffe.

"We were just sitting here Monday. We were glued to the TV set at the bar and wondering what we could do to help," said chef Brad Weiss, who once worked as a cook at Commander's Palace, a New Orleans landmark.

For every chef's special and every bottle of wine, $1 will go to the American Red Cross through Sept. 30. Proceeds from some other items, such as happy hour drinks, also will go to the relief effort.

"Our business is built on the spirit of Louisiana. That's a second home for us," said Okra's owner, Charles Gilliam. "However much we collect is still not going to be enough, but every dollar counts."

Staff writers Nikita Stewart and Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.

Glendora Queen of the Scripture Cathedral day-care staff carries supplies the D.C. church is collecting for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Queen, Christine Brunson and Timothy Smith of Scripture Cathedral carry donations for hurricane victims.