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Dust Cloud Chokes Eastern Australia

A huge cloud of red dust driven by gale-force winds is choking Australia's biggest city, Sydney. Residents have described scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie after waking to an eerie dawn.

The suffocating haze has shrouded some of Sydney's most recognizable landmarks.

The Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House were almost lost in a monstrous cloud of dust that has been whipped up by thunderstorms in drought-hit areas of the New South Wales outback.

The dust is causing misery and chaos. Flights have been diverted and ferries canceled, while traffic has been forced to a crawl because of poor visibility.

Many residents are forced to seek refuge indoors, while those who battle the elements have been bombarded by tiny particles of dust propelled by gale-force winds.

Doctors warn people with asthma, and heart and lung diseases to stay indoors but even the healthy suffer under the conditions.

Professor Gordian Fulde from St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney says emergency department staff members have treated a procession of patients.

"It has been unbelievable," he said. "From nearly the crack of dawn we have had joggers come in - fit young men and women - who have just had real trouble breathing and we have had to treat them. Even just half an hour ago we had an elderly gentleman who basically collapsed and he is quite ill because he just could not breathe because of the dust, so really it has had a major effect."

Dawn broke with a fiery red light in Sydney, as the sun hit the blanket of dust that now has spread across two states. Further north, parts of Queensland are also affected.

The weather bureau calls it the worst dust storm to hit this part of eastern Australia since the 1940s. The conditions are expected to persist into Thursday and there are warnings that more wild weather is on the way later in the week.

The past day has been tough for other parts of the continent; Victoria state was hit by two minor earthquakes, hail storms hit parts of western New South Wales and parts of Queensland suffered bushfires.

While Australia is one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change, scientists do not directly link extreme weather events such as storms and drought to warmer global temperatures. Instead, they say these events are largely due to natural variability.