The schoolhouse-turned-shelter where Thomas A. Kirchner spent much of yesterday huddling from the storm was not much to look at.

But if the concrete block walls and tile floors of Stemmers Run Middle School lacked the familiarity and comfort of his home, they more than made up for that drabness by providing safety and security amid the storm.

"The trailer is practically falling apart," Kirchner, 38, said about his mobile home in Rossville in eastern Baltimore County. "A strong storm might rip it apart and this hurricane would destroy it. I figured it would be better to come here. This is a strong building. Got a sturdy roof over us."

The sentiment was common at the Essex middle school, one of two emergency shelters in the county. Shielded from the driving rain and whipping wind outside last night, Kirchner joined newfound friends drinking coffee, playing cards and singing "Lean on Me."

And such scenes - strangers seeking safety and distraction as they waited out a dangerous hurricane - were found in emergency shelters across Maryland.

At Washington High School in Princess Anne, Red Cross officials and volunteers were rationing 60 folding cots. By midafternoon, they were sending new arrivals to a second shelter about a mile away at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

"What we really need is cots, cots, cots - and coffee," said Judy Harris, Red Cross shelter manager at Washington High.

Harris said four or five volunteers had arrived early yesterday to translate for Spanish-speaking evacuees. Another translated French for Haitian migrants.

Among the volunteers was Rafael Correa, a native of Chile who heads a small manufacturing company in Salisbury.

"We need to reach a level of comfort here for people who are going to have to be here for long hours on a hard floor," Correa said. "What's been good is that among the evacuees, people have come forward to help ... do whatever is necessary."

In Baltimore, 92 people had shown up at four city shelters, authorities said. Farther south, cots lined the hallways at Annapolis High School, where cafeteria workers were ready to feed 500 people breakfast and lunch for a week, said Penny Knapp, a food service manager for the school system.

And at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Mayor Kevin E. Dayhoff and Principal Sherri-Le Bream mingled with Red Cross workers in a shelter set up in the cafeteria.

All the activity reflected an awareness of the toll of previous floods.

In 1972, tropical storm Agnes killed 21 Marylanders, including three Baltimore County children.

More recently, when Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999, 10-year-old Andrew Keatts was swept into an Essex storm drain. The water carried him about 300 feet until firefighters pulled him out unharmed.

Typically during storms, there is flooding in Oella by the Patapsco River on Baltimore County's west side and in Bowleys Quarter, Wilson Point and Sparrows Point by the Middle River on the east side.

So emergency shelters were set up on both sides of the county. Yesterday evening at the shelter in Arbutus Middle School, there was only one family listening to compact discs, reading and talking.

But across the county, at Stemmers Run, 17 people camped in the cafeteria.

Cyndi Walcott, a Red Cross volunteer from Westminster who was running the shelter, said it could accommodate more than twice as many people. There were plenty of cots, blankets and ham sandwiches on hand.

"Usually you don't have as much notice as we had today. Typically, when you're looking at tornadoes, fires, flooding, you don't have this much time to plan," Walcott said.

She said plans for the shelter had been in the works since Isabel formed. The shelter opened at 3 p.m. yesterday.

Jennifer Faria, 21, arrived shortly after the opening. Last weekend, she had moved to the area - to be with her boyfriend - from Long Island and hadn't found a place to stay yet.

At the shelter, she whiled the hours away playing double solitaire and sipping bottled water with new friends.

Kirchner, an unemployed factory worker, nursed a cup of black coffee and a bag of potato chips as he watched the card game unfold. He had moved into an abandoned mobile home in June when he could no longer pay rent. The mobile home has a mattress, sofa and his two bags of belongings, but he worried the storm would destroy it.

He was planning to stay at the shelter last night, today and, if necessary, even longer. "Depends on how that hurricane runs up," he said.

Sun staff writers David Anderson, Andrew A. Green, Chris Guy, Laura Loh, Jamie Stiehm and Sheridan Lyons contributed to this article.