updated 10/27/2005 9:46:35 AM ET 2005-10-27T13:46:35

The number of people who lost their jobs because of hurricanes Katrina and Rita has now climbed above the half-million mark with further increases expected in coming weeks from Hurricane Wilma.

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The Labor Department reported Thursday that an additional 24,000 people who lost jobs because of the devastating Gulf Coast storms filed applications for unemployment benefits last week, pushing the total over the past eight weeks to 502,000 hurricane-related claims.

The weekly job losses from Katrina and Rita peaked at 108,000 in mid-September and have been trending lower since that time. However, analysts said Wilma, which hit Florida on Monday, cutting off power to millions of homes, will likely spark a renewed surge in jobless claims in coming weeks.

The 24,000 hurricane-related jobless claims last week were included in total jobless claims of 328,000. The overall figure was down from 356,000 jobless applications for the week ending Oct. 15.

The weekly claims figure for the entire country hit a high of 435,000 in mid-September, a week when hurricane-related claims also peaked at 108,000.

Economists have been encouraged that outside of the hurricane-devastated areas, the number of layoffs has held fairly steady.

They are forecasting that overall economic activity will be reduced by as much as a full percentage point in the last half of this year but will rebound in 2006 as the billions of dollars expected to be spent on rebuilding stimulates overall growth.

The government will release its first estimate of overall economic growth for the July-September quarter on Friday. Economists are expecting the gross domestic product will have advanced at a respectable pace of around 3.6 percent although before the hurricanes hit, many analysts believed GDP growth would be above 4 percent in the third quarter.

For the week ending Oct. 15, the states with the highest layoffs were North Carolina, which had an increase of 1,920 jobless applications, a rise blamed on layoffs in construction, primary metals, textiles and the furniture industries. Layoffs were up by 1,155 in Kentucky, with the increase blamed on job losses in manufacturing.

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