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Six dead, hundreds of homes destroyed: Today's the anniversary of the deadly 1970 tornado

Twister left six dead, injured 200, left hundreds homeless and caused more than $17 million worth of damage

Editor's note: This story originally ran on Aug. 20, 2017. is re-running the story today to mark the anniversary of the Sudbury tornado that tore through the community on this day in 1970.

When Sudburians awoke on the morning of Aug. 20, 1970, the weather for the day was projected to be cloudy with a chance of showers. By 8:30 a.m., however, that forecast couldn’t have been further from reality. 

Around that time, parts of Sudbury and Lively were devastated when a violent storm struck without warning. As the sky darkened, the clouds unleashed a torrent of rain and hail, and winds as strong as 100 miles an hour battered the Nickel Belt. Within 10 minutes, it was over, but the destruction was significant. Six people were dead, 200 injured, hundreds were homeless and more than $17 million worth of damage was caused. 

In 2020 dollars, that is more than $111 million.

The only notice residents received that morning was from the ominous voice of a woman who called into a local Sudbury radio station. Once on the airwaves, she reportedly exclaimed, “my house is blowing away, my house is blowing away,” before the line was disconnected. While her desperate plea may have alerted some to the approaching storm, by the time it would have registered with listeners, it was already too late. 

Radar would have been able to provide an early indication of the irregular weather pattern that was taking shape, but at the time, Sudbury did not possess the technology. Although the storm supposedly would have been visible on radar in stations in Toronto, given the distance between the two cities, an accurate visualization was not possible.

What happened next was what most people have referred to as a tornado. While it may be remembered as that today, there was some discrepancy early on how to characterize the whirlwind. In a special report to the Globe and Mail, a Weather Office spokesperson rebuked the claims that a twister had touched down. Officially, a tornado requires the presence of a funnel cloud. Although the Sudbury event had some of the characteristics of a tornado, no funnel cloud had been reported that day. Nevertheless, even with questions about the classification, the storm would have ranked near the top of the Fujita scale, which is used to measure the intensity of tornadoes. 

In the aftermath, Mayor Joe Fabbro declared Sudbury a disaster area. In fact, in its survey of the wreckage, the Globe and Mail wrote that it looked like Lively had been bombed. In some respects, both locations did look like war zones; homes were completely destroyed and rubble lined the streets. Elsewhere, the roof of a partly completed wing of the Memorial Hospital had been ripped away and two exterior walls of the Glad Tidings Tabernacle church were gone. 

For the Lively area, the devastation was severe. In a community of just 3,000, the storm left few people untouched. Upwards of 325 people were left homeless after their houses were destroyed.* Although the tiny hamlet had been hit hard, neighbours banded together to search for survivors, clear debris, and take in those who had been displaced.

Today, the storm still resonates with those who experienced it firsthand. Sonia Del Missier, who was a high school student living on Copper Street at the time, vividly remembers how uncharacteristically dark it was for an August morning. 

“It was so dark and loud. I certainly never experienced anything like that, and for a fleeting moment, it felt like it was the end of the world,” she said. 

Elsewhere, in New Sudbury, Wilda Pegoraro also noticed how black the skies had turned. 

“I thought, 'I better go get the children and take them down to the fruit cellar,'” she said.

But before she could wake them from their bedrooms, torrential rain shook their home. As water penetrated the windows and infiltrated her kitchen, she began to worry if her house was going to flood. Meanwhile, her two children, Andrew and Ann, somehow slept soundly through all the commotion. By the time they woke up, the storm had already passed. Although the family escaped unscathed, Wilda didn’t take any chances in the future. 

“From then on, whenever I saw the sky getting dark, I just took the kids to the basement and we stayed there until it brightened up,” she said.  

Sudbury hasn’t experienced another storm quite like what rolled through in August 1970, but you don’t have to look too far back for other examples of when winds rocked the Nickel City. In fact, just this past April, Sudbury was battered by a tempest that, according to Environment Canada, registered winds of up to 100 km/hour. Given the speed and fury of the gusts, you could understand why some residents battened down the hatches, thinking that a funnel cloud was on the horizon. Each year, an average of 60 tornadoes are reported in Canada, however, these twisters rarely touch down in Northern Ontario. 

If you have memories of the Sudbury “tornado” of 1970, we’d love to hear your recollections. Please share your story by leaving a comment below. 

Mike Commito is a freelance writer in Greater Sudbury.