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September 25, 2009

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Australians clean off the grime after storm

MILLIONS of Australians were wiping a film of reddish Outback grit from nearly everything yesterday 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 normal flight schedules were resuming yesterday, a day after the dust cloud caused almost 20 international flights to be diverted from Sydney and threw domestic schedules into turmoil.

"The dust was quite spectacular, but didn't in itself cause a lot of damage," state Emergency Service Minister Steve Whan said.

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.

But child care centers in Sydney kept young children inside yesterday until an official all-clear came through.

Visible from space

The dust storm had 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."

No one was hurt in the storm, though health officials responded to hundreds of calls from people complaining of breathing difficulties.

One man had a lucky escape when his four-wheel drive vehicle overturned on a remote Outback road.

John White set off an emergency beacon and waited for about 2 1/2 hours for police to arrive as the wind slowly covered the vehicle with sand, Senior Constable Neale McShane of Birdsville police told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

"I spent most of the day pushing dirt out so I didn't get buried myself," White told Sky News television.

As it cleared away from Sydney on Wednesday afternoon, the dust moved north along the heavily populated eastern coastal area clogging skies over Brisbane.


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