Patty Nelson's phone started ringing at 7 a.m. Thursday. It hasn't stopped since.

On the second day of her effort to get medical supplies to Haiti from her kitchen table in Aitkin, Minn., she kept getting more offers of help for the tens of thousands of victims of the catastrophic earthquake.

Nelson, who coordinates Project Haiti, is bracing for the arrival of as much as 5,000 pounds of medical equipment in her two-car garage. She hopes to send a semitrailer truck packed with emergency supplies to Haiti next week.

"We just need emergency medical supplies --sutures, gloves, anesthesia -- and the money to get this stuff down there,'' she said wearily.

Across Minnesota, as a large outpouring of volunteers and aid takes shape to help Haiti, Minnesotans are worrying that they are in a race against time.

Will emergency supplies arrive fast enough to save lives? Is there a place for volunteers to sleep? Is there food and water?

Feed My Starving Children, in the Twin Cities, is scrambling to get 1 million meals to Haiti in the weeks ahead. A White Bear Lake nonprofit is rushing its director there to check on the fate of its school and orphanages. A St. Cloud bank executive is writing a check for $50,000 to spur other donations to the tragedy.

But people -- even doctors, nurses and engineers -- need to wait for the right time.

Food, water, and housing are in such short supply that only skilled volunteers working with large international relief organizations are welcome at this moment.

"It's going to be very unpredictable,'' said Monte Achenbach, one of two staffers from the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee who flew to Haiti Thursday. "The first things that need to be done are to clear the roads, clear the people trapped in the buildings and offer food, water, sanitary services -- the things people are literally dying for.''

Minnesotans rally

In White Bear Lake, Jeff Gacek spent Thursday fielding dozens of calls and trying to learn the fate of the school and orphanages run by his nonprofit, Healing Haiti.

While Gacek turned away many potential volunteers, including doctors and engineers, he decided to take the plunge himself.

He expects to land in Port-au-Prince Sunday. Gacek hopes to stay at compounds run by an organization associated with the late Mother Teresa, or possibly with his Haitian staff. His back-up sleeping quarters: a roughly 8- by 40-foot storage cube that his agency maintains on the island.

In St. Cloud, Norm Skalicky, CEO of Stearns Bank, gazed at the photograph in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday morning and decided he could no longer just stare. It was a photograph of an arm, wearing a watch and a wedding ring, protruding from rubble of a building.

"You wonder who this person was, the suffering he went through, all the families without options,'' said Skalicky. On Thursday he created a $50,000 "matching grant'' from his personal foundation to spark local support for earthquake victims. Central Minnesota Community Foundation, which oversees his foundation, also kicked in $15,000 for disaster relief.

In the Twin Cities, Cassandra Hamilton was among the Minnesota nurses who responded to a call by National Nurses United to help the injured in Haiti. Hamilton is a family care nurse who works with children at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids.

"I feel like nursing is a way to give back to people,'' said Hamilton, who also has volunteered in Colombia. "I feel it's my obligation.''

Feed My Starving Children, with three centers in the metro area, is hoping to send 1 million meals to Haiti in the weeks ahead, said spokesperson Gwen Cowle. A truckload of meals rolled out Thursday morning, Cowle said.

Likewise, corporate volunteer efforts are taking off. Cargill volunteers at its Twin Cities headquarters will package 20,000 meals on Monday for the nonprofit Kids Against Hunger to be sent directly to people in Haiti, as well as another 30,000 meals over the next month.

A long-term situation

As urgent as it feels now, Minnesotans should realize the crisis in Haiti will be with us for a long time, said Steve Miles, a University of Minnesota bioethicist who has participated in many medical relief missions.

"What's really needed now is food, diggers, dogs and materials,'' Miles said. "The best approach right now is to send money to large organizations ... that can move on a swift and large scale.''

The next phase, he said, will include erecting "MASH-style'' hospitals, clinics and feeding stations, as well as massive public health services.

The final phases include the rebuilding of roads, libraries, schools, and telecommunications systems, he said. This is where Minnesotans should consider lending a hand.

"If you're a church group, don't think about sending a bunch of clothes to Haiti today,'' said Miles. "Think about partnering with a school in Port-au-Prince and funding textbooks, blackboards or rebuilding the school.

"Minnesotans should think about this as a long-term situation,'' he said. "There will be enormous needs in the years ahead.''

jim.spencer@startribune.com • 612 - 673-4029 hopfen@startribune.com • 612-673-4511