SYDNEY: The worst dust storm in decades swept across eastern Australia yesterday, blanketing Sydney and snarling transport as freak conditions also brought earthquakes and giant hailstones.
Gale-force winds dumped thousands of tonnes of red desert dust on Australia's biggest city, shrouding it in an eerie orange haze and coating the iconic Sydney Opera House in a fine layer of powder.
Sydney residents told local radio that they woke up to scenes from an apocalyptic Hollywood movie, while many contacted emergency services fearing a big bushfire in the city.
One woman said she woke up to find that red dust had covered her floors, and birds had been blown out of their nests.
'It did feel like Armageddon because when I was in the kitchen looking out the skylight, there was this red, red glow coming through,' the resident, identified only as Karen, told Australian radio.
The storm, reportedly the most serious since the 1940s, then spread 600km up the coast to Queensland and could even hit New Zealand, some 4,000km away, experts said.
Dust covered most of New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, pushing air pollution to record levels and depositing about 75,000 tonnes of powder in the Tasman Sea every hour.
Dust storm disrupts air traffic
'Dust storms like this occur quite regularly but they rarely travel this far east and come through Sydney,' said Mr John Leys, principal research scientist with New South Wales' Department of Climate Change and Water.
Sydney residents wore face masks and covered their mouths with scarves as they travelled to work under hazy skies. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on major highways.
Air transport was severely disrupted, with passengers facing long delays at Sydney airport and many international flights diverted to Melbourne and Brisbane.
Though the dust over Sydney had largely cleared by mid-afternoon, flag-carrier Qantas urged passengers to cancel any non-urgent travel, while budget offshoot Jetstar offered free flight rescheduling and refunds.
Singapore Airlines, responding to queries from The Straits Times, said that only one flight, which left Singapore on Tuesday, had to be diverted.
SQ221, which was diverted to Melbourne, has since arrived in Sydney, it said. All other operations to and from Sydney were proceeding as normal, it added.
Sydney Ferries suspended harbour services and police warned drivers to take extra care in poor visibility. Ambulance workers reported a sudden spike in respiratory problems.
Australia, in the grip of a decade-long drought, is emerging from an abnormally hot southern hemisphere winter, including the hottest August on record.
Elsewhere in New South Wales, hail stones 'the size of cricket balls' smashed windows, as thunderstorms and gale-force winds lashed the state late on Tuesday.
'We've had reports of cars with both their front and rear windscreens smashed,' an official from the State Emergency Service said.
Further north, Queensland imposed a ban on lighting fires across large parts of the state a day after a dozen bush blazes sprang up following a hot, dry spell.
Tough water restrictions there are to be set aside temporarily to allow people to wash dust from their cars, homes and business premises, the Australian AAP news agency reported.
Victoria state was on alert for flash floods as heavy rains fell, following a pair of minor earthquakes on Tuesday. The 3.0- and 2.6-magnitude tremors did not cause any damage, officials said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
[Dust, wind, bush fires, hail, earthquake - yep. End of the world.]