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The tornadoes that tore a deadly path of destruction in Ontario in 1985

Powerful twisters tore through parts of Ontario on May 31, 1985.

Powerful twisters left at least 12 dead and hundreds homeless after they hit on May 31, 1985

Betty Walsh is seen peering through a broken window of a neighbour's upturned cabin in Barrie, Ont., three days after a deadly tornado ripped a path of destruction through the community. (Tim Clark/Canadian Press)

Whether seen at ground level or from the sky up above, the damage was shocking.

It had resulted from a series of tornadoes that ripped across parts of central and southern Ontario on May 31, 1985, leaving at least a dozen people dead across several communities.

Collectively, the twisters also left trees uprooted, buildings destroyed and hundreds of people homeless.

By the evening, Ontarians were still coming to grips with the scale of the tornado-driven disaster that arrived in a flash that afternoon.

'Nothing left' in some places

Tornado aftermath in Barrie, Ont.

Digital Archives

36 years ago
1:34
A deadly tornado hit the city of Barrie, Ont., on May 31, 1985. 1:34

Eight people had been killed in Barrie, Ont., a city north of Toronto where one tornado cut a particularly devastating and deadly path of destruction.

"The tornado hit so hard that in some places, there was simply nothing left," the CBC's Vicki Russell reported on The National that night, as viewers saw aerial footage of what the tornado had done to everything in its path.

Buildings had been levelled and debris had been strewn along the tornado's path. Vehicles had been tossed about like small pebbles. Whole factories had been taken out.

Russell said "it seemed whatever the storm touched," chaos was the result.

'Awful' devastation

The day the tornado hit Barrie

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36 years ago
1:13
CKVR journalist Michelle Rao spoke to the CBC's Barbara Frum just hour after a tornado struck Barrie, Ont., on May 31, 1985. 1:13

A journalist with Barrie's CKVR television station gave a brief sketch of just how quickly the tornado tore apart the obstacles below it.

"It only took a few minutes before it was all finished," said Michelle Rao, when speaking to The Journal that evening.

She said the aftermath looked like something from an ongoing conflict in another part of the world.

"To look at the scene in the southern end of Barrie is really quite devastating," Rao said.

"We see the pictures from Lebanon and we think that's awful. Well, you can almost compare it to that."

Separate tornadoes, more tragedies

Deadly tornado hits Grand Valley, Ont.

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36 years ago
0:36
The town of Grand Valley was hit by a deadly tornado on May 31, 1985 -- the same day another deadly tornado hit Barrie, Ont. 0:36

That same afternoon, a separate tornado hit the town of Grand Valley, Ont., about 100 kilometres to the west and north of Toronto.

"Houses just a pile of rubble, hardly anything left standing," the CBC's Knowlton Nash told viewers on The National, describing the damage to the homes that tornado had hammered in that community.

Two people in Grand Valley were killed — one a local resident and another a visitor from Scotland, according to a next-day newspaper report in the Toronto Star.

Fifty kilometres to the east in Tottenham, Ont., another two people died as a result of the same tornado that had also struck Grand Valley.

The aftermath

Looking back on a day of disaster

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35 years ago
1:20
Reporter Cathy Legedza recaps a day of disaster in Barrie, Ont., a year after a tornado hit the Ontario city. 1:20

Twelve months after the day of disaster, the survivors in these communities were still trying to rebuild their lives.

At that point, a tally of the estimated financial damages gave a glimpse of what those survivors were up against as they tried to move on.

"The final price tag: $130 million," said reporter Cathy Legedza, when recapping the disaster on CBLT a year after the fact.

At that point, Legedza said Canadians had donated nearly $10 million to help those who did not have insurance to cover what had been lost. The provincial government had also provided funds to help, as well as money to help with emergency clean-up costs.

Legedza said the City of Barrie was about to put up two plaques to mark what the city had gone through.

"One in memory of those who died in the storm, another in thanks to those who helped pick up the pieces," Legedza said.

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