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Historic dust storm sweeps Arizona, turns day to night

Motorists drive along Interstate-10 during a dust storm in Phoenix
Motorists drive along Interstate-10 during a dust storm in Phoenix

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Phoenix brushed itself off and returned to normal on Wednesday after a "historic dust storm" swept over the area, sending residents scrambling for cover, knocking out power and delaying flights.

Day turned into night as the billowy plumes of dust rolled over the mountains and clogged the skies over and around Phoenix in the late afternoon and into the evening on Tuesday, applying a good coat of dirt to the surroundings.

"Where we are, it looks like Mount Saint Helens," Jeff Lane, a spokesman with the Salt River Project utility, told Reuters.

"It looks like we had an eruption with all the dust that's all over the parking lot," he added.

The storm downed trees, tossed yard furniture, and snuffed out visibility across an area of some 50 miles at its peak on Tuesday evening, although there were no reports of any fatalities.

Around 100 electric customers remained without power as the sweep-up began on Wednesday morning, with crews expected to restore service to all residences by the end of the day, officials said.

"We didn't see any more damage than you normally get from a monsoon storm," said Jenna Shaver, an Arizona Public Service Co. spokeswoman.

The National Weather Service office in Phoenix called the dust storm "very large and historic," in a statement posted on its website, describing the blow as an "impressive event."

Residents rushed inside as sand from the storm blasted the area in winds of up to 50 miles per hour, NWS reported. Near zero visibility forced drivers to stop on area roads until the worst of the storm passed.

Flights at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport returned to normal on Wednesday after the storm caused interruptions on Tuesday evening with a few flights canceled, some diverted to other airports and a dozen delayed, said airport spokeswoman Julie Rodriguez.

A barrage of dust set off fire alarms in the terminal, but crews quickly cleared the mess from the storm, also known as a "haboob," she said.

Weather experts say haboobs frequently occur during the summer monsoon season in the southwest United States.

That's when thunderstorms produce downdrafts that can kick up dry, loose sand on the desert floor, creating a wall of dust that travels outward, spanning a much larger area than the thunderstorm itself, according to Senior Meteorologist Jim Andrews on Accuweather.com.

The storm that struck Phoenix was described as "miles long and moving fast," according to Accuweather.com.

(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Tim Gaynor and Jerry Norton)

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