SHE was spotted in blue jeans in Charleston, S.C., just after hurricane Hugo, serving food from an emergency truck. No cameras or scribbling reporters in tow. She appeared - late, but attentive - at a small technical symposium here recently on disaster communications. She watched Hugo's trek from a meteorological center in South Korea. She walked through an emergency planning drill in northern California in August, two months before the real quake hit.
Marilyn Quayle is finding her distinctive place as the vice president's wife and national public figure. She is deeply involved in disaster preparedness with a seriousness of purpose not quite traditional in second ladies.
Ladybird Johnson, as a vice presidential wife, worked hard at filling in for first lady Jacqueline Kennedy at social functions. At President Eisenhower's insistence, Pat Nixon joined her husband on foreign trips when he was vice president to soften her husband's public image.
But none took up an issue of substance with the intensity that Marilyn Quayle has delved into disaster.
``This is innovative,'' says Paul Boller, author of ``Presidential Wives,'' published in 1988.
``It's a nice issue for Mrs. Quayle,'' says Betty Boyd Caroli, author of ``First Ladies'' (1987), ``a very safe woman's issue.''
``I am having the time of my life right now,'' said Marilyn Quayle in a Monitor interview at the vice president's residence. She adds that the power of her bully pulpit has taken her aback. ``In some ways I seem to be naive about that.''
Since her husband took national office, she has consistently stressed her independent intellect and professional interests. A lawyer by profession, she has yet to abandon the hope that she can slip through the maze of conflict-of-interest obstacles and take a paying job.
Such a job is unlikely. But the chafing at the traditional social and ceremonial demands of her role are no longer as evident as in the first few months of the year.
At the vice president's official residence, a Queen Anne mansion on the Naval Observatory grounds a few miles from the White House, a couple of small trail bicycles are parked in the drive near the front door - reminders of the 13 years Mrs. Quayle has spent outside the work force as a full-time homemaker and mother of three.
In recent months, however, she has conferred with disaster planning professionals all over the world, trodden in the wake of Hugo from the Virgin Islands to the Carolinas, and inspected the aftermath of California's Loma Prieta earthquake.
On international trips with her husband, she visits disaster research centers and relief agencies. Both Quayles have acknowledged that her itineraries are often more interesting than his.
Disaster preparedness neatly meets the traditional requirements of an issue for a politician's spouse: It is a wholesome, undisputable concern that calls for raising public awareness, a task to which she can apply the celebrity value of her position without taking sides.
No harm, either, in that helping out with a disaster - such as Hurricane Hugo - casts her in a Florence Nightingale role. She and her staff have been at some pains, however, to keep press coverage to a minimum.
``I don't travel with retinues,'' she says, ``because I don't think it's appropriate, quite frankly. I take this very seriously and I don't want anyone to think that all I'm using this for is a media event, because it's too serious.''
In fact, local disaster relief organizers in the Caribbean and the Carolinas got word in advance that Mrs. Quayle wanted to avoid press and politicians in favor of doing some hands-on work and close observation.
She has won some good reviews from disaster relief planners in the field.
``I was extremely impressed with her knowledge of the federal and private sector disaster relief systems,'' says Gary Miller, a Red Cross official who met Mrs. Quayle in Puerto Rico after Hugo. ``She was here early enough to really see some of the difficulties we were having.''
Mr. Miller adds that he was more impressed with her depth of interest than with that of Presidents Nixon or Carter, whom he met under similar circumstances.
Her own interest in disaster preparedness goes back to her youth in Indiana, where she grew up with regular tornado and air-raid drills. ``I guess maybe I was a good Girl Scout or Brownie or something,'' she says.
When she was 14, gas tanks exploded under the stands in Indianapolis Coliseum, killing 74 people, including the mother of a friend. Mrs. Quayle's parents, both physicians, rushed to help. Her older brother used his hearse as an ambulance. The episode left an impression on her about the need for readiness.
In sharp contrast, when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in October, northern California had just been through a massive drill in August by federal and state agencies for responding to a catastrophic earthquake.
When the quake came, ``we were ready,'' says Mrs. Quayle, ``which we wouldn't have been two years ago.''
The response to hurricane Hugo in South Carolina was not as smooth. Local officials did not understand how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) worked, she says, and they were frustrated that it could not respond directly. Instead, the federal role is a supporting one coordinated through governors.
``People don't understand that a disaster has two economic effects,'' she says. The initial effect is the direct one of closing down businesses and stopping services. The second effect is when major relief services are provided from outside the area that could have been provided by local businesses.
One South Carolina mayor, for example, asked the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild the dunes on the local beach. But FEMA steered the mayor to a local contractor capable of handling the job so that the cost of the project stayed in the local economy.
``It's initially a hard concept to get across, because people want help right then, and it seems so much easier to say, `Bring in the Army Corps of Engineers,''' she explains.
MRS. QUAYLE is remembered favorably in the aftermath of Hugo, even by people angry over the federal response. Rep. Arthur Ravenel came close to switching from the Republican to the Democratic Party over the way the federal government handled Hugo relief, but his staff in Charleston, S.C., spoke admiringly of her visit.
One of her priorities is to take the lessons of the California earthquake to the small towns of the Midwest, many of which are in the earthquake zone of the New Madrid fault. A series of quakes centered near New Madrid, Mo., in 1811-12 were felt as far away as Canada, and were strong enough to make the Mississippi River run backward for days.
Hollister, Calif., where unreinforced buildings in the small downtown area collapsed, is similar to those all over the Midwest. Losing such downtowns may not add up to impressive dollar losses, but it can destroy a community.
``Retrofitting those buildings, in my opinion, is an absolute must right now throughout the Midwest,'' she says.
Mrs. Quayle speaks enthusiastically of her work, but she still does not rule out a conventional paying job. ``If somebody made me a great offer that was not a conflict of interest or shows even the appearance of impropriety that would be really exciting and mentally stimulating, I am not sure I would turn it down.''