UPDATED 04/29/11 7:58 a.m.

CHICAGO (WBBM/CBS) — The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago wasted no time putting nurse Mary Witherspoon to work when she volunteered to work with them at disaster scenes in January.

When the great blizzard slammed the Chicago area Feb. 2 and 3, she was put in charge of opening a shelter in the southwest suburbs. She has served as an on-call nurse to provide assistance at fire scenes on Chicago’s South Side and in surrounding areas.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Bob Roberts reports

That was pretty straightforward compared with Witherspoon’s coming mission. Later Friday, she leaves on her first deployment as part of a Red Cross Rapid Response team, whose members converge from across the nation on disaster zones.

Witherspoon has been a nurse since 2005, but has taken several courses since the first of the year to prepare her for what could be ahead.

She knows she is flying into Birmingham, Ala., but said she has no idea what she will do once she arrives.

“The goal is to go down and see what we can do to help everybody,” she said.

That could mean working in a hospital operating room — or going door-to-door in tornado-ravaged areas. As a result, she has had to pack for a bit of everything.

“I’m trying to take as little as I can,” she said, but said she has several changes of scrubs for use in hospital settings, as well as hiking boots and clothes for work “in the field.”

Witherspoon has family southwest of Birmingham, but said she knows they are safe. While that gives her some peace of mind, she knows the same won’t be true for many of those she will try to help, and she said she knows much of what she sees will most likely be heart-rending.

“It all looks pretty horrible,” she said.

ComEd is also sending 16 crews to Alabama. As of just before 8 a.m., they were already on their way, and will stay for a week or two to help restore electricity.

Watch & Listen LIVE