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Keith Pauls thinks about his buddy Jim Breland every time he pulls out of his driveway and sees the broken trees.
Instead of passing Breland waving from his house — or picking him up for their next hunting trip, like he’s done for decades — Pauls drives by his best friend’s grave on Turner Expressway in Varnville.
Reminders of last year’s deadly tornado in Hampton County, which killed Breland, 59, his wife Donna, 56, and their daughter Kayla, 26, surround Pauls.
Sometimes it’s the pieces of neighbors’ homes still stuck in the trees and fields. Other times, it’s when dark storm clouds move in.
It’s hard to escape the painful reality: A family so close, people who were part of everyday life, suddenly and tragically gone.
Pauls and his wife, Barbara, have leaned on each other and God more than ever since April 13, 2020, when an unexpected EF4 tornado killed five people — the Brelands and two coworkers who lived together — in the county. The twister injured at least 60 others and damaged nearly 200 homes, according to the National Weather Service. The tornado traveled 24 miles from the Estill area toward Colleton County with winds speeds up to 175 mph.
For months after, Pauls searched his home for a photograph.
He knows he and Breland have taken photos together after a big kill during deer hunting season, or with their wives, who are also best friends and cousins.
After sifting through a suitcase of old photographs until his eyes grew tired, Pauls felt defeated.
“I just know there’s a picture of us, and I must keep missing it,” he said.
In October, Pauls decided to make a new one. He took separate photos of himself and Breland holding bucks, sat them side by side on a table, and snapped a photo with his smartphone.
Now he carries a photo of him and his friend everywhere he goes, including in the tree stand when he hunts, although Pauls went less frequently this past season.
“I don’t do a whole lot of hunting now,” Pauls said. “I still go sometimes, because I know he wouldn’t want me to give it up.”
He hasn’t returned to their favorite spots, though. That’s too much too soon.
When Breland wasn’t hunting, he was either fishing, spending time with his family, or working at the Wiggins Concrete Co. where he’d been for 30 years.
Pauls said Breland’s wife, Donna, was also a hard worker and the “sweetest, most giving person.”
She touched the lives of many of Hampton County’s children when she worked at Jen’s Rainbow Land and later as director of the Melon Patch Childcare Center. She also worked in the nursery at Nixville Baptist Church, where she was a member.
And like her mother, daughter Kayla Breland enjoyed her job as a childcare worker and found joy in being with children. When she had free time, she enjoyed doing arts and crafts, including drawing and painting.
“The Brelands didn’t have a lot, but they were good people, and they always helped people,” Pauls said. “It ain’t the same without them, and we can’t bring them back. But when you’re so used to seeing them, it’s heartbreaking.”
In the year since the tornado, the Pauls family has tried mostly to remember the happy times they shared with the Brelands and the laughs they’ll never forget.
On Tuesday, the anniversary of the tragedy, Pauls and other community members plan a memorial event at the Ginn Cemetery where the family is buried together.