"But it was interesting work. My first assignment was flooding in Southern West Virginia in 2004. I went to places I'd never been before. My next assignment was a year later, Katrina.
"On Aug. 1 2004, I had an operation for a bunion. On Aug. 29, Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. FEMA called me twice. My doctor wouldn't release me until two weeks later. FEMA rented an empty department store, and there were 5,000 people in there.
"I was there 4 1/2 months. We went to New Orleans to record why 80 percent of the city flooded. In the lower Ninth Ward, a barge broke through its mooring and broke through the levee wall. It wiped out the whole Ninth Ward.
"They had all these people they had to put somewhere. What most people call a trailer park, they call a group site. They brought in about 600 trailers. People complain because they expect FEMA to rebuild their house. FEMA is just there to give them temporary housing until their insurance rebuilds their house.
"The next major disaster I had was Greensburg, Kan. You can see my pictures on the FEMA website if you type in my name. An F5 tornado made a direct hit. They had 11 deaths. The town was gone. When Mother Nature gets mad, get out of the way.
"FEMA brought in a bunch of people. We had no place to stay. They got a circus tent and cots and put us in that. FEMA photographers use their own equipment, so there's definitely a threat of theft. After three days, they found me a hotel room.
"I had to reapply by a certain date, and I didn't do that. When Sandy hit, they called me anyway. If I wanted to stay after that, I had to reapply, and I didn't want to do that.
"After I photographed Greensburg, they had a 500-year flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Water came up eight feet in the middle of town.
"While I was there, on the other side of Iowa, where Iowa State is, there was a Boy Scout camp. A tornado killed four Scouts in a shelter, and they sent me to record it. The director of FEMA came, and I photographed him with the people who ran the camp.
"I was out of it four years. I just made myself unavailable. FEMA work is very difficult. At the start of a disaster, you work 12 hours a day, seven days a week for at least a month. That is physically demanding and emotionally stressful because you are dealing with people who have lost their homes. People want more than FEMA can legally provide.
"I haven't actually resigned. My last deployment to New York with Sandy caused some problems for me. They sent me as a videographer. I'm not a good videographer, but I got some good stuff.
"On Long Island, the wireless microphone came apart, and I tried to fix it. I took my shoe off because it had sand in it, and the camera fell on it and broke my toe. The toe got infected, and I had my toe taken off.
"I've had tragedy in my life. In 2000, on her birthday, my wife and I were going to a Marshall game. She said she didn't feel good. She went to lie down. Twenty minutes later, I checked on her, and her speech was slurred. She had an aneurysm in her brain stem. Three days later, I had to sign the papers.
"My grandson, Braxton, was 15. He was a great kid, straight-A student, went to a private school, an athlete. Everybody liked him. Three years ago, he shot himself. He had gotten into religion, and they said he indicated that he wanted to have dinner with Jesus.
"I will never get over it. You can't. Most of the time, I think about it, and it goes right by. But when I talk about it, I get emotional. All we can do is say, 'Thank you, Braxton, for the time you gave us, and I'm sorry you decided you had to leave. I hope you are in a better place.'
"One of the advantages of being a Carbide photographer was that they had frequent dinners and social events, and I got in the habit of taking pictures of people, and I enjoyed it.
"That's how I got into photographing people. My legacy will be the pictures that I leave for people, because that's all I've got -- photography.
"I met Lucie Mellert at an event for Dow. We've been fast friends ever since. I like the idea of going out to cover events like she did. It's satisfying to take good pictures that people enjoy.
"I can't tell jokes, or sing or dance, and I don't date, so that's about all I can do. And it gets me out of the house. People enjoy seeing themselves in the paper.
"I try to be pragmatic and take advantage of all the good things I have. I don't have much. This is a messy, run-down house, and I'm an old guy without much money.
"The death of my father, my wife and my grandson were all very hard. But there have been good times, too, and West Virginia is a great place. I love it. It's under the radar as far as the rest of the world goes, but that's the way I like it."Reach Sandy Wells at san...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.