PITTS GAP, Tenn. -- Except for splintered wood that's weathered gray, the landscape atop Brayton Mountain looks like the EF4 twister that claimed four lives just passed through.
It's been almost a year.
The half-mile-wide swath begins on top of the mountain at Pitts Gap near the Bledsoe-Hamilton county line, then bears northeast a few hundred yards before reaching the sites where two lives were snuffed out in the darkness of April 27, 2011.
Today, most of the 28 home sites lost to the storms are driveways leading to nothing or piles of storm-torn trees around new construction or new modular or mobile homes. Officials said more than 200 buildings were damaged, 20 of them heavily.
At a spot on Graysville Road, shattered trees on the south side of the blacktop lie in a pile with a livestock trailer and a children's swing set wrapped around the splintered stump of a tree. Across the road, a driveway leads into what once was a yard, but there's no sign of the home where Debbie and Harold Fox spent their last hours before the twister took them.
Just over a hill to the northeast, a mailbox nailed to a storm-downed oak tree juts toward the road near the site where sisters Patricia "Pat" Lynette Thompson and Loretta Winters Bellos were lost to the storm.
Folks in the country recover, just like everyone else. But for some it's been a slow, arduous process, owing to their isolation and stubborn self-reliance in the face of absent or inadequate insurance. A few people bounced right back, but some still face an uphill battle to resume the lives they led before.
Bledsoe County Mayor Bobby Collier is grim when he recalls the night the storms hit, but he knows the people in the mountaintop community are tough. Bledsoe folks take what's available and make the best of it, he said.
"One of the biggest signs of encouragement that we saw: Somebody had cut the tree off and notched it off and put a mailbox up," he said.
AUTO REPAIRS UNDER THE SKY
At his auto-body repair business, Kenny Kizzar, 42, works on customers' cars under a bright blue sky on a concrete slab surrounded by pastureland still littered with tree limbs and roofing tin. Some of the vehicles were wrecks before the storm and now are part of the storm debris.
There's no building. Winds of 200 mph tore away the 40-by-100 metal shop building. He, his wife and pets hid in a bathroom of a tiny apartment in the shop.
The winds ripped away the bathroom carpet and all but about a square foot of floor tile around a drain.
The rest of that end of the building was blasted into a loading dock pit along with him and his wife, Kizzar said, gesturing from the concrete slab to the piles of debris in the pasture to the north.
"I thought I'd taken my last breath. I really did," he said.
He praised emergency and power crews, volunteers and neighbors who helped people in Pitts Gap when they needed it most.
"I thank them a lot," he said.
Kizzar said he's still battling with his insurance company over his tools and inventory, so his four-bay shop will remain an open-air work space until his insurance claim is resolved.
He said he'll rebuild "if the insurance will ever settle up with me." Until then, passers-by can see Kizzar, on business calls, pacing with his cell phone through the vehicles on the concrete. A sign at the roadside warns trespassers the place is under video surveillance.
This month, Jim Jordan and Brenda Senters got to move into their replacement home, just half the size of the two-story, 4,200-square-foot home obliterated a year ago.
That one was their dream home and the result of a 41/2-year search, Jordan said.
At 9:12 p.m. on April 27, Jordan said, they had almost no warning before he stepped outside with the dog to see a tornado with twin funnels whirling inside it bearing down on the house. Jordan, Senters and an adult nephew bolted for the basement, he said.
"The storm blew the kitchen away just as the dog came in the house, sucked [Senters'] right leg up sideways and sucked the shoe off her foot and it went out through the roof," he said. "It just tore the house to shreds."
Jordan, 68, said he was fortunate to have a different insurance carrier than most of the storm victims in Pitts Gap. Response was quick, he said, even if it didn't pay to build back the same house.
The couple are still seeking a solution to the acres of downed trees on the property. Jordan and Senters worry that a brush fire could endanger every home in the tornado-stricken area. Jordan said he's worked at cleanup as he was able, but the job is really beyond one man's abilities.
For others, the chance to rebuild might have been "a godsend," he said, because they were able to replace already dilapidated structures and make long-needed repairs.
"A lot of people that were broke -- the ones that had insurance with the exception of [a specific company used by several] -- had a pretty good time," he said.
But Senters said the storm hit the farming community hard at the beginning of the growing season.
"The ones I feel so sorry for are the farmers -- the farmers had lost their income," Senters said. "We survived. It's been an ordeal."
Recovery happens a step at a time, they agreed.
The company that was to replace their furniture still hadn't made a delivery, "so we're dealing with that," Senters said as she milled around the kitchen, the only room that has furniture.
She said she's still getting over what she guesses was post-traumatic stress syndrome.
"I developed claustrophobia, had nightmares about drowning or being caught somewhere I couldn't get out, like in the basement. It didn't hit me until months later, but it got worse and worse for a long, long time," she said.
Jordan said it bothered him to lose some of the lumber and tools he hoped to salvage from a fire that was set to clear debris and the remains of the house.
"It burned all the way through the night, and I was just cussing myself because of all the stuff we lost in it," he said.
Senters had her own sense of loss.
"I didn't mind losing 'stuff,' but the things that had meaning for you ... I've got the memories," she conceded.
Jordan said they didn't plan a storm shelter as part of the new house.
"Don't want one," he said. "If it hits us again, we'll just be gone."
BACK TO TRAILERS
As warm days returned this April, 42-year Pitts Gap resident Della Solomon sat on her porch with a panoramic view of hundreds of acres of devastation.
She and her husband, Gary, lost their double-wide mobile home in the storm. Solomon; her daughter, Kathy Banks; her grandson, Brett Williams; and their dogs were huddled inside that night. The funnel cloud lifted the home, moved it about eight feet and dropped it to the ground, pulverizing most of the structure, she said.
"I just thank God we survived," said Solomon, 68.
She said her husband, 66, doesn't say much about his feelings, but she believes he's quietly mourning the heavy damage to his boyhood home next door.
They were uninsured, she said.
"My husband was a payment behind and they canceled it," she said. "He was supposed to have a 15-day grace period."
Without insurance, Solomon said their only choice was to purchase smaller, used mobile homes to replace their destroyed ones.
"But we had a lot of help from FEMA and the churches around here and the Red Cross," she said.
RISING FROM RUBBLE
The tornado carved a path of destruction in the New Harmony community south of state Highway 30, where Johnny Jackson; his siblings Ronny and Vonnie; and their mother, Lorene, farm about 25 crops on more than 1,000 acres.
On a windy day in March, Johnny Jackson, 61, struggled to talk about the night. He said he worked to help neighbors as he weaved his way through the downed trees to Vonnie's home, only to find a pile of rubble.
There's no home there now, but tin from the mobile home and nearby farm sheds is still wrapped around the trees "like a piece of bacon," as Jackson described it.
He seemed compelled to tell the story of his experience, and his speech sped up with his excitement.
"I had come around, and they started clearing with a tractor down thataway," he said, pointing. "They was a boy there that had to go to hospital, and we were trying to get [a path] opened up for them. And whenever they got him loaded up and left, I got around them and come up the road here.
"I pulled in here and backed up and shined my lights," Jackson said, his excitement grinding to a halt as the moment's emotion returned.
He walked around the front of his pickup truck to compose himself under the weight of the memory, but continued with a strong voice despite the shimmer in his eyes.
His sister's family wasn't at home, "thank God," he said.
Jackson said it took six weeks to clean up the debris and about four weeks -- with help from a contractor and his own farmhands -- to make major repairs to the farm's produce-packing shed, a building the size of a large barn with a loading area on the back.
Despite being "way underinsured," the Jackson farm will rebound, he said.
"There's still lots of cleanup to do," he said. "We'll still be working on it another year or two."
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@times freepress.com or 423-757-6569.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...
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