September 24, 2009 in Nation/World

Storm blankets Sydney with thick, red dust

Rohan Sullivan Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

A person takes pictures in front of the Sydney Opera House during a dust storm Wednesday in Sydney, Australia.
(Full-size photo)

SYDNEY, Australia – Millions of Australians were wiping a film of reddish Outback grit from nearly everything today after the country’s worst dust storm in seven decades played havoc with transport systems and sent asthmatics scurrying inside.

The country’s largest airport said it hoped to resume normal flight schedules today, a day after the dust cloud caused almost 20 international flights to be diverted away from Sydney and threw domestic schedules into turmoil.

Skies over eastern Australia were mostly clear and blue, and New South Wales state health officials said they expected air pollution to drop to normal, safe levels after reaching record highs the day before.

The dust storm Wednesday shrouded Sydney and surrounding areas for about eight hours, blotting out landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge and even reaching underground to coat subway stations.

The haze, churned by powerful winds that lifted thousands of tons of topsoil from the arid and drought-stricken inland, was visible from space, appearing as a huge brown smudge in satellite photographs of Australia.

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

Officials in New South Wales said almost 500 emergency calls came in on Wednesday from people complaining of breathing trouble, but there were no serious problems.

The dust so thoroughly blanketed everything in its path – clothes, cars, train seats – that New South Wales and Queensland government 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.

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

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,” a Sydney resident 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.

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