Torn asunder, then brought together

Published 11:35 pm Friday, April 27, 2018

Driver came out of tornado better than before


It was a typical Monday in Driver on April 28, 2008, when Harmony House Antiques owner Phyllis Murphy got her only warning of what was coming that afternoon.

Murphy was behind the store counter talking with her friend Bud Hardison while her daughter Lee Murphy and Elise Parker tended to the cats in the rear room. A customer known for pulling her leg called to warn her about a tornado heading straight for Driver. Murphy wasn’t buying it until he called back again in a screaming fit.


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“We were going to the television to see what was going on when the doors blew off,” Murphy said.

The wind was howling. Wood had splintered and shards of glass flew in all directions. Murphy screamed for her family and friends to follow her into the bathroom but she couldn’t even hear her own words.

The storm sucked Lee Murphy out of the freshly torn opening in the side of the house, holding cat cages from the back room, as her mother, Parker and Hardison curled up inside the bathroom.

“She was cut, bruised and everything else, but she jumped back inside to see if we were OK,” Murphy said about her now 64-year-old daughter. “It’s incredible that we survived.”

The harrowing experience in Driver lasted mere minutes.

The storm gutted Harmony Houses Antiques. Its walls and ceiling were torn away, and exposed rooms were filled with debris. The only room that stood intact was the bathroom, Murphy said. The nine foster cats inside the store survived, and Murphy’s cat Isabella wasn’t found until three days later.

Arthur’s General Store next door lost posts, floorboards and a good portion of the roof, but the structure was in far better condition than others at the intersection of King’s Highway and Driver Lane.

Owner Greg Parker had just gone home across the street when his two-story wooden house began to shake.

“It’s equal what you hear with a freight train, and it feels like the railroad tracks are right beside your house,” Parker said in a phone interview.

There were fallen trees, downed powerlines, crushed sheds and people’s livelihoods scattered across the pavement and dirt.

“It was like a warzone,” Cynthia Parker said. “You couldn’t even believe you were in the same peaceful neighborhood. It was chaos.”

Her late husband Craig Parker owned the Driver Variety Store, a cherished shop where friends spent afternoons together. The tornado leveled the building, and hunting supplies, hardware, motorcycle gear and numerous other wares were under a pile of broken wood.

But there were once again surprising mercies inside the destruction. The truck parked in front of the store was almost untouched, along with the 500-pound propane tank next to the entrance.

Parker’s friend Leroy Schmidt was looking after the store while Craig and Cynthia ran to Food Lion when the tornado tore everything apart, but he still managed to walk away.

“Leroy was in the Driver Variety Store when the tornado hit, and luckily he dove under a rack of clothes and was not hurt or killed,” Parker wrote in his book “Some Are Dead and Some Are Living” about Driver’s history. “We could have easily lost him that day, but he lived to ‘fight another day.’”

Emergency personnel filled the streets for days afterwards to maintain order. People were evacuated, and their homes were left for days with no power. The emergency responders used the Knot Hole Station store as an improvised headquarters.

“The police actually caught a few people vandalizing a couple of homes,” Parker wrote. “It is bad enough to have your house and property destroyed or damaged and having to worry about stealing what you do have left.”

In spite of the chaos, there were men, women and children who came together to get Driver back on its feet.

The Rev. Tom Potter, former pastor of Pinecrest Baptist Church in Portsmouth, led a team of volunteers that gathered salvageable merchandise for the business owners. Beech Grove United Methodist Church opened its fellowship hall and served meals to residents and volunteers.

The Red Cross, United Way, Driver Ruritan Club, Boy Scouts of America and numerous other organizations offered their food and sweat.

“The Scouts came down the road with shovels and picks and things to try and get the debris out of the road,” Joan Parson Mayo of the Knot Hole Station store in a phone interview. “There was just a lot of good done by people.”

It took 53 weeks of setbacks and struggle for crews to rebuild Harmony House Antiques, Murphy said. She said she doesn’t miss her inventory that was swept away too much, or the old walls that gave way to the wind.

When she thinks about that day 10 years ago, she remembers a woman dressed in a crimson jacket and a black skirt, “like she had just come out of church,” Murphy said. This woman rushed over to her after the storm had just destroyed her business and repeated “Everything is going to be OK” to her three times.

Murphy turned away for just a moment, and then the woman was gone. She hasn’t seen her since, but she still remembers her kindness.

“It made me a believer, I can tell you that,” she said.