Three days after flying into Montgomery, Ala., hurricane relief volunteer Chris Hernandez finally took his first shower.
During that time, he had set off on a harrowing nine-hour drive along unlighted roads scattered with fallen trees and storm debris, then worked 18-hour days at a warehouse in Mississippi loading 18-wheelers with food and supplies for distribution to hurricane victims in Gulf Coast states.
"It is exhausting, but that's what we do, that's why we came," said Hernandez, 42, of Lexington Park, a retired Navy lieutenant who works at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. and is one of the dozens of American Red Cross volunteers who have shipped out from Southern Maryland -- or soon will -- to provide hurricane relief. "I brought gloves, and I promised my wife I'd come home 10 pounds lighter. So I'm doing okay."
Southern Maryland's response to Hurricane Katrina continued to expand this week. The list of efforts to help people in the wind-damaged and flooded areas along the Gulf Coast seemed to grow longer every day.
* The local chapter of the American Red Cross began training sessions in La Plata for the estimated 70 people who have volunteered for three-week stints in the hurricane zone.
* Public school systems in Charles and St. Mary's counties have enrolled close to 30 students displaced by the storm, and individual schools are organizing donation drives to help out.
* The Solomons volunteer fire department in Calvert County hosted a fundraising dance Saturday night, and the Port Tobacco Players' youth troupes are planning performances this weekend in La Plata to raise money for Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild homes on the Gulf Coast.
"This is going to go on," said Mike Zabko, executive director of the Southern Maryland chapter of the Red Cross. "It's not going to be tomorrow we're going to stop, it's going to be 90 to 100 days that we're there."
At the Red Cross office in La Plata on Tuesday, disaster training specialist John Johnson stood in front of 16 potential volunteers explaining the proper way to manage an emergency shelter. A PowerPoint presentation flashed what have become familiar images -- such as the submerged St. Bernard Parish near New Orleans and evacuated families crowded into the Superdome -- onto a projection screen in the carpeted training room.
"The Superdome was not a Red Cross shelter," Johnson told them. "It was totally unorganized; they did not have things laid out right; there were just mobs of people."
Johnson then guided the volunteers through procedures for inspecting a potential shelter site, registering everyone who enters, feeding them, providing physical and mental health services, settling territorial disputes between families on neighboring cots, finding places for pets and for those who work nights and want to sleep during the day. (The soundproofed band room of a high school usually works, he said.)
When all the details seemed to be too much to retain, one woman asked, "If you wind up doing sheltering, are they going to train you on the ground?"
"Oh yes, on-the-job training," Johnson said. "We want to ensure the shelter is a safe place -- safe physically, safe socially, safe emotionally."
Southern Maryland's public school systems decided to offer a safe haven for students displaced from their home schools in the South. Charles County, which is already pressed for classroom space, enrolled 26 students, St. Mary's enrolled two and Calvert has received inquiries from interested relatives, school officials said. The school systems are required by federal law to accommodate students who are considered "homeless," Charles County schools spokeswoman Katie O'Malley-Simpson said.
"We would take them anyway," she said, "because it's the right thing to do. They've already been through a hurricane. They've lost everything, and children need to be educated. That's the business we're in."
At Milton M. Somers Middle School in La Plata, teachers and staff members bought backpacks and school supplies for the seven new students who arrived from the battered region. Other schools decided to pitch in with donations. Schools in St. Mary's County, such as Ridge Elementary, Esperanza Middle, Leonardtown Elementary and Greenview Knolls Elementary, are conducting fundraisers. Mechanicsville Elementary School is collecting teddy bears and other stuffed animals to be sent to children in areas affected by the hurricane. Hollywood Elementary is planning a fundraising walk around the school grounds at 2:30 p.m. tomorrow to benefit the Red Cross.
"We've had a real good response, over $1,000 so far," said John Hazuda, principal of Greenview Knolls Elementary in Great Mills. "It's a shame what has happened down there. My heart goes out to all the people."
Local compassion was not confined to the human victims of Katrina.
Two animal control officers from Charles County -- Chief C. Edward Tucker and Officer Jeffrey Gustafson -- left for Pascagoula, Miss., about 10 p.m. Saturday. They drove one of the county's animal control vans, packed with supplies, and plan to spend two weeks there.
"They've rescued pigs, cows, horses, dogs, cats, and run across people in their residences who don't want to leave so they give them food and water," said Susan DeGuzman, an animal control officer in Charles.
Volunteer Hernandez, who was dispatched to Natchez, Miss., along the Louisiana border, confronted an evacuee population of about 1,000 people divided among six emergency shelters. When he was in the Navy, he had assisted relief efforts after volcanic eruptions in the Philippines, earthquakes in Japan and hurricanes in Florida. To envision Katrina, people should "imagine the worst possible disaster," he said.
"It's heart-wrenching. You can't listen to every story, you can't help every person that comes to you," he said. "Sometimes, when you go get something to eat, you want to take your [Red Cross] vest off because you'll be stopped so many times by people needing help."
Most of Hernandez's efforts have been devoted to setting up a supply distribution center out of a warehouse. He started by making an inventory of the pallets of blankets, cots, diapers, water, meals ready to eat, suntan lotion and other supplies. Then he coordinated with the Montgomery Red Cross operation to load the material on vans and tractor-trailers for shipment throughout the region.
Among the volunteers helping Hernandez load and drive trucks, he said, were prisoners from the local jails.
"I was like, 'Uh oh, are we going to have a security situation here,' " he said of his reaction when the sheriff first brought around the prisoners, dressed in black-and-white striped jumpsuits.
But they are hard workers, he said. "Regardless of if they're incarcerated, they deserve awards. They didn't have to do this."
Staff writers Jonathan Abel and Amit R. Paley contributed to this report.