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When dawn's red glow is a mammoth dust storm in disguise

A dust storm that blew in from the outback deposited its rust-colored treasure in the night, turning the morning into a fog of red.

By Jan Hanley / July 9, 2010

A man in Sydney, Australia, walked his dog during a massive dust storm on Sept. 23, 2009

Greg Wood/Newscom

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At 6 a.m. I woke to a blood-red sky.

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My first thought was that there was a fire just outside my door. We live in a heavily bushed area where the eucalypts, casuarinas, and native grasses combine to provide cover for the wallabies, goannas, snakes, lizards, and kookaburras and other birds. However, although the atmosphere was blood-red and dense, there was no smell of smoke.

My second thought, after determining there was no fire, was, "Where's the camera?" Locating the camera I turned it on only to find the batteries were flat. I raced to the kitchen, expecting to locate the spares, only to find they had all been used by other members of the household. I remembered the rechargeable batteries I kept hidden so household members couldn't find them. They were not charged.

By now I was getting to the point that I thought I would miss this photo opportunity and wondered what to do. I decided I would give the rechargeable batteries a quick boost in their charger and get the camera working, all the while hoping the moment wouldn't be lost, suspecting the red was being caused by a spectacular sunrise.

And then, hallelujah, after a long three minutes I was in business. It appeared this was not a sunrise. They only last a few seconds. I began shooting pictures until I realized that they were all the same. When you can't see more than 25 yards, what subjects there are to shoot are very few. Putting down the camera, I stood and surveyed the scene. What was this red fog? Was it the end of the world as many people who were later interviewed by the media had believed?

We live on the banks of the beautiful Hawkesbury River, about 115 feet above the water level and about 25 miles north of Sydney, Australia. Our views are normally quite astonishingly beautiful, but today I was unable to see the water, the jetty, or any distinguishing features beyond the end of the verandah.

As we live in an area where the only access to our property is by boat, I could hear motorboats trying to find their way through the red murk on the way to taking their inhabitants to work. I had made the crossing many times in heavy fog, groping my way through the clinging cold gray cover.

But this was different.

As I watched and listened I became aware of the dust settling on everything. This was the color of the red dust of central Australia.

As the night had been fairly warm, all the windows and doors were open. I raced around the house closing all openings, feeling like the stable hand after the horse has bolted, and then thought of the dusting I would have to do to return the house to its pre-red state.

What had dawned on me was that we were in the middle of the mother of all sandstorms. We knew there had been severe winds coming across Australia from the west, and that we were in for a very windy time.

But no one had thought the winds would take what the experts later told us was the equivalent of 10,000 fully laden semitrailers of dust and deposit it on the eastern seaboard and farther. That's 60 cubic meters per vehicle at least, making 600,000 cubic meters (21 million cubic feet) of dirt.

What's more, this dust might circle the globe if there was no rain to bring it back to earth. The first port of call would be New Zealand, 1,200 miles to the east. Just think, without having to leave home, the folks in New Zealand would see the center of Australia on their front doorsteps!

For those who didn't believe the color of the dirt from central Australia was so red, here was their proof. Here was the real thing in central Sydney. It was almost as though the land was saying, "Look at me, look at me. I am red, I am red."

After many hours of this red "fog" – after the airports were reopened and the roads got back to normal; after the river reappeared and boats could again see their way – I reflected on what would now have to happen.

Cars would have to be washed, windows cleaned, and for those of us who'd left windows open in the night, a dusting exercise to beat all dusting exercises.

I decided to let it settle for a few days.

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