SUSAN DENTZER: This is the Pete Maravich Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, home to LSU's famed basketball Tigers.
MEDICAL AIDE: Do you walk okay?
MEDICAL AIDE: Okay.
SUSAN DENTZER: But for the past ten days, the center was a so- called "surge" hospital treating a surge of more than 6,000 patients evacuated from hurricane-stricken New Orleans.
DR. BILL CASSIDY: Are they taking care of you? Do you have your medicines filled. Everything else?
PATIENT: Yes, sir.
SUSAN DENTZER: Across town, several hundred more evacuees were treated at this second temporary hospital, created in just under two days at an abandoned K-Mart. Dr. Bill Cassidy, an LSU liver specialist, served as medical director.
DR. BILL CASSIDY: When we came in, there was grease all over the floor, dust, 90 percent of these lights were out. There was no electricity, no phone lines. No one had checked the plumbing and we couldn't even open all the doors. 36 to 48 hours after we began the process, we were ready to begin receiving patients.
SUSAN DENTZER: Although these facilities seemed to have sprung up overnight, in reality they are the result of several years of intense planning by state health officials and by the local and regional healthcare system. That's meant that the health and medical efforts following Hurricane Katrina have been one of the few comparatively bright lights in an otherwise problematic response.
DR. JIMMY GUIDRY: It's probably in the hundreds when you talk about number of volunteers.
SUSAN DENTZER: Much of the planning came under the direction of Louisiana's top medical officer, Dr. Jimmy Guidry. In fact, just two weeks before Katrina struck, he organized the latest in a series of practice drills.
DR. JIMMY GUIDRY: We had a drill called Hurricane Pam, where we -- where this exact scenario was what we worked on. What if New Orleans gets hit, which is the largest population in the state, they are all evacuating, they are going to other parts of the state and New Orleans would be totally under water?
SPOKESPERSON: So I think what we're going to need a lot of social workers and a lot nurses to help coordinate transfers.
SUSAN DENTZER: The plan to create temporary hospitals, like the ones at K-Mart and Pete Maravich, stemmed from a stark reality. Other hospitals around the state, as is true in much of the nation, are too lean, too small, or too cash-strapped to instantly accommodate thousands of new patients.
DR. JIMMY GUIDRY: Hospitals today are not able to surge. And that is, they normally have enough beds that are staffed for their usual business. When something like this hits, you don't have a surge capacity and that is you don't have a number of medical professionals you can bring in and open up more beds.
SUSAN DENTZER: Before the hurricane hit, the Pete Maravich Center and the nearby LSU field house were set to serve as emergency shelters for evacuees. But as the magnitude of the storm's impact became apparent, emergency physician Chris Trevino was tapped to transform Pete Maravich into a giant temporary ER. In the space of just a few hours, the center was turned into an 800-bed hospital. Everything from IV drips to mobile X-ray equipment was brought in from local hospitals, private companies and donations by the public. The hospital opened for business hours after the hurricane, with just a handful of medical professionals.
DR. CHRIS TREVINO: Initially there was certainly more patients than we had people to manage, and I had no real infrastructure in terms of set up to catch patients, set up to register patients, set to monitor their progress through this. I mean, it was just a bus came, they started coming down the ramp and we started receiving them.
SUSAN DENTZER: Trevino says that the evacuees included very sick patients from New Orleans hospitals who'd been on ventilators and breathing artificially. They rapidly used up almost all of the oxygen on hand.
DR. CHRIS TREVINO: I had one tank of oxygen left and I was fixing to have to make some pretty tough decisions of what I was going to do. And fortunately we got another deposit of oxygen before that happened because I was burning through my oxygen very fast.
SUSAN DENTZER: Slowly the situation improved. Illinois sent its own state emergency medical team to provide assistance. Medications arrived from the so called national strategic stockpile -- federal "push-packs" of medical supplies located around the country.
But then came another unexpected problem: Trevino learned that several thousand patients were still stranded at the New Orleans Airport under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
DR. CHRIS TREVINO: There were hundreds of buses waiting to get them and I don't know why it took so long, but it did. And here I was, I had this place set up for patients and they weren't coming.
SUSAN DENTZER: Trevino and a police escort drove to the airport and cajoled FEMA teams and National Guardsmen into letting several thousand people board the buses for Baton Rouge.
JAMES VINCENT BATTIE: I don't have no money.
SUSAN DENTZER: James Vincent Battie, age 44, was one of those New Orleans airport evacuees eventually treated at Pete Maravich. We spoke to him as he awaited a bus to take him on to an area shelter.
JAMES VINCENT BATTIE: My blood pressure was real high, like 180 over 140 -- it was real high. And the guys did a good thing in there.
SUSAN DENTZER: Trevino, though, is haunted by the reality that many probably were not saved.
DR. CHRIS TREVINO: I think many died because of our inability to get access, to get them to access, and to get transportation access to them.
SUSAN DENTZER: Retired Air Force Surgeon General P.K. Carlton and physician Ray Swienton are emergency preparedness experts from Texas.
DR. P.K. CARLTON: What we've got to get across to the country is for the whole variety of threats that we face to the country, every single hospital, every single health department needs to have these type of things thought out, planned, prepared for and then properly trained for their people.
DR. RAY SWIENTON: We won't be safe, we won't be prepared until there's a commitment to readiness that could reproduce a response like this in every community in the United States.
SUSAN DENTZER: And that could make all the difference in the future between lives snuffed out and lives saved.