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Vast, red dust storms choke Australia

A pall of red dust blown in from the Outback clogged the skies over Sydney on Wednesday, diverting international flights, disrupting public transport and prompting a spike in emergency calls from people suffering breathing difficulties.
Image: A dust storm blankets Sydney's iconic Opera House at sunrise
A dust storm blankets Sydney's iconic Opera House at sunrise. Tim Wimborne / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Red Outback grit shrouded Australia's largest city Wednesday, blotting out such landmarks as the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge and even reaching underground to coat subway stations. The country's worst dust storm in 70 years diverted planes and produced an eerie orange sky.

The haze was visible from space, appearing as a huge brown smudge in satellite photographs of Australia.

By afternoon, the dust had moved on from Sydney, heading north to the Queensland state capital of Brisbane, where the sky was clogged into the evening.

No one was hurt as a result of the pall that swept in overnight, bringing an eerie orange dawn to Sydney, but ambulance services reported a spike in emergency calls from people with breathing difficulties, and police warned drivers to take it easy on the roads.

The dust clouds formed in Australia's interior — parched by the worst drought on record — when gale force winds snatched up tons of topsoil and threw it high into the sky before carrying it hundreds of miles eastward.

The Sydney Morning Herald called it "the day the country blew into town."

The dust so thoroughly blanketed everything in its path — clothes, cars, train seats — that Queensland promised to lift water restrictions, imposed because of the drought, so residents could clean their homes and vehicles.

Suburban rail trains carried the dust into underground stations in Sydney.

"When I got on the train at Cronulla, our seats were covered in this red dust," Robyn Jaques said, referring to a station south of the city. "It's got over all of my clothes."

Flights diverted, canceled
International flights were diverted from Sydney to other cities — three from New Zealand were turned around altogether — and domestic schedules were thrown into chaos as operations at Sydney Airport were curtailed by unsafe visibility levels.

Even after Sydney's skies cleared, severe flight delays persisted because of diverted and late-running planes, according to national carrier Qantas. Passenger ferries on the city's famous harbor were also stopped for several hours for safety reasons.

Helicopters carrying water to douse bush fires raging in Queensland were grounded in the afternoon because of poor visibility.

But forecasters predicted normal conditions would return to Sydney on Thursday, and flights were expected to be back on schedule.

Such thick dust is rare over the city, and came along with other uncommon weather conditions across the country in recent days. Hailstorms have pummeled parts of the country this week, while other parts have been hit with an early spring mini-heatwave, and wildfires.

"It did feel like Armageddon because when I was in the kitchen looking out the skylight, there was this red glow coming through," Sydney resident Karen told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

The storms are the most severe since the 1940s, experts said. One was recorded traveling from southern Australia all the way to New Zealand some 1,400 miles away.

Dozens of calls about breathing
Officials said particle pollution in Sydney's air rose to the worst on record Wednesday, and the New South Wales state ambulance service said it had received more than 250 calls before midday from people suffering breathing problems.

People with asthma or heart or lung diseases were urged not to go outside and to keep their medicine inhalers handy.

"Keeping yourself indoors today is the main thing to do if you have any of those conditions and particularly if you're a known sensitive sufferer such as children, older adults or pregnant women," said Wayne Smith, a senior state health official.

Sydney residents coughed and hacked their way through their morning commute, rubbing grit from their eyes. Some wore masks, wrapped their faces in scarves or pressed cloths over their noses and mouths.

"These dust storms are some of the largest in the last 70 years," said Nigel Tapper, an environmental scientist at Monash University. "Ten very dry years over inland southern Australia and very strong westerlies have conspired to produce these storms."

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