Steve Watson is self-employed, so when the Rainier carpenter got the urge to drive to Mississippi and help with hurricane relief in September, he went.
"If I'd have had a job, I'd have quit it," said Watson, 57 and divorced. "I just felt so strongly I needed to do this."
He has spent the last four months mudding out houses, coordinating volunteers and building the sheds he calls "pods from God" at a Baptist church in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
In a phone interview last week, Watson tried to explain how the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina Aug. 29 changed his life.
"I had seen these pictures of a town totally decimated. You'd see one picture on the news, then not another word. I started thinking about these towns. I thought about my family, what we'd do if our little town was wiped off the face of the Earth.
"What if everyone forgot about us but made a big deal about Longview?"
He was finishing a remodeling job for friends in Brookings, Ore. when the idea hooked him, Watson said. He talked to his daughter, Kelsey Linnell of Rainier, and to good friends. They all said, "Go."
He outfitted a flat-bed trailer, hitched it to his pickup and loaded up his tools and supplies gathered by friends for hurricane victims. "I left on a Saturday at 8 p.m. and got to Mississippi the Friday of the following week (Sept. 9)," he said.
He drove 3,200 miles through Indian summer and eight states.
"I turned south at Memphis," he said. "People had mentioned Gulfport … I had this sense that that's where I was supposed to be."
Starting with teachers, whom he trusts to know what's going on in a community, Watson was directed to a pastor in Gulfport and then to the Rev. Ed Murphy at Shoreline Park Baptist Church, 25 miles away in Bay St. Louis.
"There was 29 feet of water in the church," Watson said. "It was pretty well destroyed."
The house where the pastor lives with his wife, Karen, had no water damage, "so he was collecting stuff there."
Murphy welcomed the carpenter's offer of help.
"He said, 'Where are you going to stay?'
"I said I'd find a place to camp.
" 'Well,' he said, 'I have an extra travel trailer out behind the house. You're welcome to use our shower.'
"I've been here ever since."
That afternoon, Murphy took Watson on a tour.
The Rainier man saw how the town spreads east and west along Mississippi Sound. Three miles in from the shore lie the railroad tracks, and several miles north of the tracks, Interstate 10 whooshes by on its path across the deep South.
Everything between the tracks and the sea "doesn't exist anymore," Watson said. "I'm glad to tell you all this, because there is no way to understand the destruction down here unless you've been on the ground."
For miles, nothing is left of businesses or houses but their foundations, he said, "just concrete slabs are left, and rubble, lots of rubble.
"I was not down here until the second week after the hurricane, but some places at the beach looked like a hand had swept across a Monopoly board, just swept it off."
Weirdly, Watson said, some places stayed standing, but five blocks away would be an area pounded by 30 feet of water.
"A wall of water hit the beach," he said. "It's so hard to fathom how it actually was."
Where a major road meets I-10, he said, water washed over the top of the overpass. "It looked like a lake." Two local rivers, the Jordan and the Pearl, were "twisted" by the wind, pushing them toward the bay so that they met the water surging north from the sea.
"They got the double whammy. The power of that water must have been like Mount St. Helens."
Watson described the ghost of a genteel area, "old oak trees hanging over the street, maybe some steps and iron work, but the houses are gone. It's just rubble."
According to an editorial in the Sun Herald of Gulfport, 236 people died as the result of Katrina along the 70-mile coastal region that includes Bay St. Louis.
The editorial, later quoted in an AP story about the fact that Mississippi's plight is being ignored, also reported that more than 65,000 houses were destroyed in the region, accounting for $125 million in damage.
Watson said he expected to hear that more people had been lost, but "some evacuated." Others ended up on roofs or hanging onto trees for up to six hours.
"The bench mark down here was Camille, in '69," he said. Many felt that if they survived that hellish hurricane, they'd make it through Katrina.
"People kept going higher, until they ended up in the attic, but they forgot the axe."
After four to six hours, the waters started to recede into the bay, Watson said, leaving a sea of wreckage, muck and mold.
Katrina left coastal Mississippi smashed and soiled. Where to begin?
"I started working with Ed at the church," Watson said. "They were adopted by a Southern Baptist congregation in Montgomery (Ala.) Bigger churches help the smaller churches."
Watson and the Murphys turned the church parking lot into a camp, with an office, a circus tent mess hall/church and living space for 83 volunteers.
They collected written requests for help, sending out volunteers to interview people before assigning teams of volunteers to different jobs.
"This is all faith-based, nondenominational," Watson said. "Some people are skilled in trades, others are nurses and lawyers, computer workers, salesmen, housewives. What they have in common is big old hearts. …
"We go out and work. The houses that survived are so gross. They're full of black mold. Think of your own house, if it filled up with water for four to six hours, and then you shook the house around, like a blender."
If families were lucky enough to have a home still standing, Watson said, they might have to throw out everything — "their parents' 50th anniversary photos, graduation photos, the baby hair they saved."
Watson doesn't want to get into the let's-rap-the-government game.
"I don't know how FEMA could be doing much more," he said. "No body was prepared for this. … They brought 40,000 trailers into Hancock County; most people are out of tents now."
It was seeing the people packed into the trailers that seeded Watson's idea.
"If you're in a 32-foot trailer, maybe two adults and two kids, where do you put anything?" he said. "I know a woman with six semi loads of clothes, but she can't give them away because people have no place to put anything."
He sketched out a simple shed, Watson said, "6-by-8 feet. I redesigned it to the simplest prototype, did a cost and built one." The $330 sheds, which he now calls pods from God, can be locked and thus provide security for whatever belongings people saved or received from relief agencies.
After Watson shared the idea with people back home, one Rainier woman gave him enough money to build 10 sheds, he said.
After seeing the sheds in Bay St. Louis, a group of Indiana volunteers went home and approached a prefab housing company in their town. Instead of sending money, the Indiana group sent down a semi full of 100 kits to make the pods, Watson said.
"We built jigs and got it all set up to produce them as fast as we can. …
"This camp is like a microcosm of miracles. When a need arises, literally, someone comes in and says, 'here's some money,' or 'I had these materials and thought you might use them.' And it's exactly what we were talking about.
"The hand of God is present down here all the time."
They had to stop taking requests for the pods, Watson said, when the number of applications reached 500 — with no publicity beyond word of mouth.
"Soon, I'll get rid of my human fear of where will the money come from," he said.
The quiet-spoken Rainier carpenter has no good words for two groups in Mississippi: construction firms that are "raping" customers with exorbitant prices, and insurance companies, which he calls "despicable."
"They screwed everybody down here," Watson said. "One of the most shameful things in this country is how the insurance companies have treated the people of Mississippi. It's pathetic, a disgrace to our nation. …
"One of my jobs is to do assessments, so I work directly with people, where things happened. And I hear hundreds of stories, gut-wrenching experiences." Of hundreds of people he has interviewed, Watson said, five have gotten paid off by their insurance companies.
"I'm keeping track."
A retired couple built a new house, he said, and moved into it four days before Katrina hit. The home was destroyed, and the husband has had open-heart surgery.
They were denied insurance coverage because of quibbling between the meaning of "flood" and "wind-driven water," Watson said.
"Now she's trying to get everything done. … The people of Bay St. Louis and Waveland are so resilient, so strong," he said.
Four months into his decision to put his tools to work in this hurricane-humbled place, Watson said he has no plans to come home yet.
"I've never been touched at this level before. I'm down here until it's done."