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 Harbour 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 an early spring mini-heatwave.
International flights to Sydney were being 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.
Qantas, Australia's national airline and biggest international carrier, said it expected severe delays throughout the day.
The state ambulance service said it had received more than 250 calls before midday Wednesday from people suffering breathing problems, and officials urged people with asthma or heart or lung diseases 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.
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.
Amateur photographers stopped in the middle of busy intersections to snap photos of dust-covered streets and cars covered in a film of red.
The dust descended on Sydney and other eastern parts of New South Wales overnight Tuesday, carried by powerful winds that snatched up tons of topsoil from the drought-ravaged west of the state and threw it high into the sky. As dawn broke, sunlight struggled to penetrate the dust cloud, casting an eerie red glow over the city and prompting scores of calls to local radio stations.
"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.
Rain started to clear the air in Tamworth, 190 miles (300 kilometers) north of Sydney, but brought fresh problems.
"It's almost raining mud," Tamworth resident Steve told ABC. "I have a green car and it's now an orange car. The wipers are barely able to cope with all the mud."
School officials urged parents to keep children with asthma at home.
Forecasters said winds carrying the dust were expected to weaken