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Memory Lane: Remembering the deadly 1970 tornado

Winds of up to 332 km/h ripped through parts of the city, killing six, injuring some 200, wrecking hundreds of homes and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage

The weather office at Sudbury Airport was expecting thunderstorms. The tornado struck without warning.

At about 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 20, 1970, winds up to 332 km/h cut through Lively and Sudbury. 

At the time the media reported 100 mph (160 km/h) winds. This has been repeated in coverage over the years, but in its 1972 report, Environment Canada classified the Aug. 20, 1970 event as a F3 level tornado with wind speeds of 254-332 km/h.

(The July 15, 2021 tornado in Barrie is classified as EF2 with a maximum wind speed of 210 km/h.)

The freak storm left an indelible mark on the memory of Sudburians.

Sudbury.com invites readers to share their memories of the 1970 tornado for the Aug. 17 Memory Lane article. Email them to editor@sudbury.com or vgilhula@gmail.com.

In 1970, Sudbury Airport did not have weather radar capable of detecting tornado activity. If it had, there may have been several hours' warning. The storm approached without a signature funnel cloud.

The public was first alerted when a women called CKSO radio and reported the roof of her home was gone. 

Six people were killed and an estimated 200 people were injured as the high winds and torrential rain blasted through Elliot Lake, Lively, then Copper Cliff and southwest neighbourhoods of Sudbury including Robinson and Lockerby.

Giant trees were ripped from the ground and roofs were ripped from buildings in Minnow Lake. Other communities, such as Chelmsford and New Sudbury, experienced high winds, but little damage.

The storm then moved east to Field, eventually weakening as it moved toward Ottawa.

Within less than half an hour, winds ravaged 300 homes in the Sudbury area, destroyed garages, toppled trees, downed power lines and crushed vehicles. Forty boxcars were overturned on the CPR track.

Damage was estimated at $17 million — in 2021 terms, that’s about $115 million. Federal and provincial politicians visited and promised to help pay for recovery. In Sudbury, a $2-million relief fund was quickly set up by city council.

Mayor Joe Fabbro declared Sudbury a disaster area and estimated there were 750 people homeless in Lively and Sudbury. Hotels and motels were full to capacity by families whose homes were damaged. As well, temporary housing was set up in schools, churches and private homes. 

At Inco, mines, mills, smelters and production facilities were substantially unaffected, but at the Copper Cliff refinery, the winds shattered glass, knocked down wood and steel girders, ripped doors from their hinges and blew entire railway cars off the tracks. 

The Superstack, under construction, was reported to have swayed but was not damaged. One of the men who helped build the stack, Aarne Kovala (who passed away in 2018), was at the top of the stack when the tornado struck. He told Sudbury.com about the experience in a 2017 interview.

The September 1970 Inco Triangle reported, "There were 25 men aloft on the stack top when the Aug. 20 storm ... struck during the morning shift change. Undaunted by their hair-raising experience, all men either remained on the job or returned on their next shift as scheduled. Due to good general safety practices, including lashing down all loose equipment and material, no injuries or losses occurred."

Lively was also declared a disaster area. The local newspaper reported hundreds of Inco employees and men working for area contracting companies laboured through most of the night to clean up debris. Police and volunteers directed traffic or stood on guard duty. 

Thousands of citizens including Boy Scouts and The Salvation Army aided police and firefighters. Local women made sandwiches and hot coffee for rescue workers.

Inco assigned its employees to assist in rebuilding homes in Lively. At the time, most homes were owned by the mining company.

Crew from Orillia and Sault Ste. Marie came to help cope with the biggest hydro breakdown ever in Northern Ontario.  More than 3,000 telephones were knocked out, and 42,600 feet of cable and 120 poles had to be replaced.

The City of Greater Sudbury has created an interactive storymap takes users on a historical journey through the events of Aug. 20, 1970.

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. She is a former editor of Northern Life and Sudbury Living magazine, and has a special interest in local history. Memory Lane is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.