WINNIPEG - It was so strong it sandblasted the bark off trees and tossed homes around as if they were toys.

The tornado that struck the tiny community of Elie, Man., this summer was deemed Tuesday to be the most powerful in Canadian history.

Environment Canada, after reviewing amateur videotape of the twister, determined the tornado packed winds of more than 400 km/h -- strong enough to qualify as Canada's first-ever F-5 tornado on the international Fujita scale.

"We saw a house being picked up whole and thrown into the air and then thrown a few hundred metres through the air, where it exploded,'' meteorologist Dave Carlson said Tuesday.

"As well, there was a van, that we later found out was full of drywall, and it was picked up and thrown several hundred metres through the air.''

The tornado touched down on June 22, cutting a swath 300 metres wide and 5.5 km long through the town just west of Winnipeg.

Amazingly, no one was seriously injured or killed, despite the fact that the tornado carried much stronger winds than the F-4 twister that roared through Edmonton in 1987 that claimed 27 lives.

"We heard the hum coming ... it sounded like a train,'' Jocelyn Godin, who was at her sister's home that evening, remembered Tuesday.

"My sister said, `If the hydro goes off, it's very, very close.' And the instant she said that, the hydro went off. Then all of a sudden, we were praying very, very hard.''

Her sister's home suffered little damage, but Godin later found her own home, on the other end of town, had been levelled.

A handful of other houses were also destroyed. Many others were damaged.

Godin is still rebuilding her life, and hopes to have a new ready-built home placed on her foundation in the coming weeks.

While Canada has never recorded an F-5 tornado before, the U.S. usually sees one or two each year, Carlson said.

Local residents say there were several factors that helped prevent serious injuries. The twister hit during dinnertime, so many people were at home and able to take cover quickly in their basements.

Fortunate timing also played a part.

"The local high school had their graduation (ceremony) that night, which happened to be taking place ... north of there in St. Eustache,'' said Roland Rasmussen, reeve of the Rural Municipality of Cartier, which includes Elie.

"Quite a few people were gone for that.''

The storm, like many twisters, was also fairly small and localized. It lifted into the air before it could hit more homes in the town.

Rasmussen, who lives 15 kilometres east of Elie, saw only hail and heavy rain on his farm. But he still stumbles upon reminders of the tornado's devastating power.

"When I was in the field this fall, thrashing and that, every once in a while I'd see a piece of (home) insulation, and I knew where it came from.''

The tornado prompted the Manitoba government to renew its call for a national severe weather warning system _ one that would send warnings to cellphones, pagers and other personal electronic devices.

The federal and provincial governments have been discussing the issue, although it remains to be seen how much money each level of government would have to provide.