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Worst dust storm in decades blankets parts of Australia

September 24, 2009|Associated Press

ASSOCIATED PRESS SYDNEY — Red outback grit shrouded Australia's largest city Wednesday, blotting out such landmarks as the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge during the country's worst dust storm in about 70 years.

No one was hurt, but ambulance services reported a sharp increase in emergency calls from people with breathing difficulties, and police warned drivers to be careful.

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

Suburban trains carried the dust into underground stations in Sydney.

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.

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

Even after Sydney's skies cleared, lengthy 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.

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