updated 9/15/2005 9:12:23 AM ET 2005-09-15T13:12:23

A total of 68,000 Americans lost their jobs due to Hurricane Katrina and filed for unemployment benefits last week, shoving these applications up by the largest amount in nearly a decade.

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The Labor Department reported that claims for benefits rose by 71,000 last week, with 68,000 of that total attributed to layoffs due to Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and other areas along the Gulf Coast.

That figure exceeded the claims filed in the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, and analysts predicted that it would be revised even higher once states catch up with processing a flood of claims.

Analysts have predicted that Katrina, the country’s worst natural disaster, will trim economic growth by as much as a full percentage point in the second half of this year and cost around 400,000 jobs.

While they do not believe that storm-related disruptions will be enough to push the country into a recession, they caution that this forecast could be proven wrong if energy prices keep soaring, triggering significant cutbacks in spending by consumers in other areas.

The economy was expanding at a solid pace before Katrina hit and it is this momentum that analysts believe will help keep the economy from being pushed into a full-fledged downturn.

The report on jobless claims showed that the increase of 71,000 applications last week was the biggest one-week increase since a rise of 82,000 claims the week ending Jan. 20, 1996, a period when claims soared after a severe winter storm along the East Coast.

The 71,000 gain in claims last week exceeded the one-week increases in layoffs seen after the Sept. 11 attacks although in the final two weeks of September, claims posted back-to-back increases of 59,000 and 64,000.

Analysts said the estimate of 68,000 jobless claims attributed to Katrina would certainly rise in coming weeks as state unemployment offices caught up with processing a flood of applications, many of them being taken from mobile units dispatched to evacuation centers such as the Astrodome in Houston.

The Labor Department, which initially estimated that 10,000 hurricane-related claims had been filed for the week ending Sept. 3, now estimates that figure to be between 15,000 and 16,000.

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