updated 10/20/2005 8:44:26 AM ET 2005-10-20T12:44:26

Another 40,000 Americans filed claims for unemployment benefits last week due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, pushing the total who have lost jobs because of the storms to 478,000.

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The Labor Department reported Thursday that the 40,000 weekly increase in hurricane-related applications for benefits was down sharply from a rise of 75,000 such claims two weeks ago, evidence that the wave of joblessness caused by the Gulf Coast devastation might finally be cresting.

The hurricanes’ impact on the nation’s unemployment rate has been significant, however, as the total number of Americans receiving jobless assistance rose to 2.89 million, the highest level in more than a year.

The 40,000 increase in hurricane-related claims was out of a total of 355,000 new claims for unemployment benefits filed last week. That was the lowest overall level since the week ending Sept. 7, the first week that hurricane claims began showing up in the data.

Economists have been encouraged that jobless claims in other parts of the country have remained steady in the wake of the hurricanes and the sharp surge in energy prices that occurred because of widespread shutdowns of Gulf Coast refineries and oil platforms.

The worry had been that the overall economy could be so jolted by the surge in energy prices that it could trigger a more severe slowdown than is now being forecast. Analysts believe that the hurricanes will slow overall growth by as much as a full percentage point in the second half of this year. But they believe that much of that loss will be made up next year as billions of dollars will be invested in rebuilding efforts.

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