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Sydney dust storm; flight chaos, health worries

A man walks to work past an almost unseen Sydney Harbour Bridge during a dust storm Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009 in Sydney, Australia.Flights are diverted and ferries canceled as a blanket of red dust shrouded most of Sydney after the weather system moved in from central Australia. A man walks to work past an almost unseen Sydney Harbour Bridge during a dust storm Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009 in Sydney, Australia.Flights are diverted and ferries canceled as a blanket of red dust shrouded most of Sydney after the weather system moved in from central Australia. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
By Rohan Sullivan
Associated Press Writer / September 22, 2009

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SYDNEY—A pall of red dust blown in from the Outback clogged the skies over Sydney on Wednesday, diverting international flights, disrupting ferries and prompting a spike in emergency calls from people suffering breathing difficulties.

No one was reported hurt as a result of the dust storm, but officials closed ferry services for hours on Sydney Harbor because visibility was cut to dangerous levels, and police warned motorists to take extra care on the roads.

Such thick dust is a rarity over Australia's largest city, and came along with whiplashing winds and other uncommon weather conditions across the country's southeast in recent days. Hailstorms have pummeled parts of the country this week, while other parts have been hit with a mini-heatwave.

At least 10 international flights and more domestic flights to Sydney were diverted to other state capitals because of visibility problems caused by the dust, Sydney Airports said. Three flights from neighboring New Zealand were turned back from Sydney and returned home because of the dust, Air New Zealand spokesman Mark Street said.

The state ambulance service reported an increase in calls from people suffering breathing problems, and officials urged people with asthma or heart or lung diseases not to go outside.

"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.

Sydneysiders 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 to keep the dust out. Amateur photographers stopped in the middle of busy intersections to snap photos of the dust-covered streets, and cars were covered in a thin film of red.