Australia cleans up after dust storm

SYDNEY – Millions of Australians were wiping a film of reddish Outback grit from nearly everything Thursday 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 Thursday, 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. But child care centers in Sydney were keeping young children inside Thursday until an official all-clear came through.

The dust storm Wednesday 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."

As it cleared away from Sydney on Wednesday afternoon, the dust moved north along the heavily-populated eastern coastal area clogging skies over the Queensland state capital of Brisbane. The city enjoyed clear blue skies on Thursday, though the dust cloud continued to push further north into remote parts of the state.

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. Emergency services responded to hundreds of calls about tree branches brought down by strong winds.

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

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.

Airlines on Thursday were still trying to get back on schedule, after diverted and canceled flights sent a ripple of delays and congestion through airports in Sydney, Brisbane and the southern city of Melbourne.

"There's been some cancellations and there will be some cleaning up to be done, but based on the weather forecasts we've got, we should started with a clean slate and things should be returned to normal," Sydney Airport executive Rod Gilmour told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

A baby crocodile swims at the Budapest Zoo. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh