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Kenny and Julia Kizzar, from left, stand amid rusting salvage parts from their business, Kizzar Automotive, in Bledsoe County's Pitts Gap community. The Kizzars are still trying to work out a settlement with their insurance company for the damage left by the 2011 storms.

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Five years after deadly tornadoes, pain still lingers in Bledsoe County

BLEDSOE COUNTY, Tenn. — The green of new spring growth adds life to a mountaintop landscape cut by a half-mile-wide swath of dead, gray oak trees.

Five Christmases, five birthdays, five Aprils have passed since tornadoes tore across the South and through the Bledsoe County communities of Pitts Gap and New Harmony, claiming four lives and upending dozens of others and leaving its mark across the mountain.

The EF4 tornado with 200-mph-plus winds struck after nightfall on April 27, 2011.

Today when you mention it, people on the storm-scarred mountain east of Pikeville grow quiet. They might try to change the subject, or they dive right into their memories, emotions welling up with fresh pain.

"There are two time periods — before the tornado and after the tornado. That's how we classify everything now," said 20-year-old Heather Sullivan, who was at her grandmother's house when the winds destroyed her family's mobile home just down the road.

"Everybody here is scared when it rains."

***

In a matter of moments, the 2011 tornado had ripped its way out of the Sequatchie Valley and up the side of Walden's Ridge south of a notch in the bluff called Pitts Gap.

It smashed through the towering oaks at the bluff's edge and obliterated a mobile home, claiming the lives of Harold and Debbie Fox, a couple described by family as soulmates who had moved there to make a life with their five Jack Russell terriers, horses and a small pond of koi.

Today, a driveway is just visible beneath the grass leading to an empty lot where their home stood. Where their bodies were found on the other side of the road, Harold still clinging to Debbie in death, saplings push upward through five-years-dead tree trunks and twisted limbs.

A half-mile to the north, the winds claimed sisters Loretta Winters Bellows and Pat Thompson, and left Pat's husband, Bill, and their daughter, Linda Jones, with serious injuries and broken hearts.

Thompson and Jones didn't want to talk about the fifth anniversary of the storms, but their houses look much as they did the year after, when they were replaced with modular homes and a tornado shelter.

New trees grow in the yard. It seems solemn and too quiet.

Kenny Kizzar's automotive parts business is still in operation — just barely — near the intersection of Graysville and Pitts Gap roads. Kizzar and his wife, Julia, lived in an apartment inside the large metal building, which was ripped from its concrete slab as they crouched in a bathroom with their pets. They survived.

The shop looks as if the cleanup from the storm is still under way, except for the coat of rust coloring the vehicles and parts.

The funnel tore its way northward from Pitts Gap, ravaging more than two dozen more homes and farms including the 1,000-plus acre Jackson Family Farm along New Harmony Road. The farm's produce packing shed, a wood-framed building the size of a large barn, was heavily damaged in 2011 but now is a brightly painted white and busy with planting activities.

It's spring time at the Jackson General Merchandise and Farm Store. Tractors trundle up for diesel and farm trucks wheel in for fertilizer, tomato and pepper plants, hydraulic and transmission fluid. Their drivers pick up a soft drink and trade a few playful barbs with fellow farmers.

The phone rings.

"Pool hall, Eight Ball," answers Sullivan, a Jackson family granddaughter who's manning the counter and cash register and occasionally plucking billing folders from a four-drawer file cabinet sandwiched between the Gorilla Glue and a display of tractor batteries.

A long, brown ponytail pokes out the back of her John Deere cap.

Sullivan's mother, Vonnie Jackson, 52, and her 84-year-old grandmother, Lorene Jackson, arrive at the store together accompanied by a couple of dogs and a tortoiseshell cat. The cat had been missing all morning.

Sullivan and her mother live at Lorene Jackson's house now, having invested all they had back into the family operation.

"It's hard to believe sometimes it's been almost five years," Vonnie Jackson said.

It's been as hard for the Pitts Gap and New Harmony communities to recover emotionally as it has been to rebound physically and financially, she said.

Even those who escaped the storm with little damage have memories that linger.

"It affected a lot of people who lived here and I guess it will for the rest of our lives," said Bobby Taylor, in the store buying supplies. People have never stopped talking about it.

Yet there was a silver lining in how the community was drawn together.

"It was a time of closeness," Vonnie Jackson said.

***

Back down the road at Pitts Gap, Kizzar is fighting the same battle with his insurance company that he faced immediately after the tornado. He said he is struggling to stay in business and, if not for his family, might have been forced to abandon it.

"We're no closer than we were five years ago," Kizzar said, shaking his head as he looked around at heaps of automobile parts rusting away without a storage building to protect them.

Kizzar's 40-foot-by-100-foot metal building housed his and his wife's 1,000-square-foot apartment. Now all that stands is a small metal building large enough for a sign and a small office. The couple now lives in Sale Creek and Julia Kizzar had to quit working for the family business and take another job closer to their home.

"Most of all, we're thankful we made it and we're thankful for community who came up here to help everybody when they did," Kenny Kizzar said.

At least they're both around to complain about insurance, they admit with a patient sigh. Like everyone else, the Kizzars were marked by the storms of April 2011.

Kenny Kizzar still has nightmares — tornadoes coming with airplanes inside them — and Julia now sports curls.

"My hair used to be straight. As soon as we had the tornado, my hair went curly as it could be. It's a whole new world," Julia Kizzar said with disbelief as a stiff morning breeze fanned out her locks.

Bledsoe County people are tough, but they'll be wary when the clouds darken.

At Pitts Gap, the wind always blows.

Always.

And sometimes it howls.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

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