Gustav claims may hit as high as $10 billion

Residential and commercial insurance claims could total $4 billion to $10 billion. More than a million electricity customers, including some refineries, lack power. And retailers are gearing up for a burst of sales once residents who fled the Gulf Coast return.

Snapshots of Hurricane Gustav's economic impact revealed Tuesday that the storm was hardly as damaging as feared – particularly for the region's vast network of energy facilities. But it will be days, if not weeks, before business as usual returns.

While Gustav's force paled in comparison to Hurricane Katrina's – which cost insurers $41 billion – oil workers, utility crews, fishermen and other business owners fanned out across the Gulf Coast on Tuesday to assess damage and make preparations to restart operations.

Outside a Lowe's in Houma, La., 34-year-old sales manager Britt Coyle said there was only minor damage to the store, which he expected to be open today to sell chainsaws, generators and other necessities to residents returning home.

For the moment, there were no customers in sight, and power outages in the area were widespread.

At the nearby Jolly Inn restaurant, the owners had a diesel generator powering their refrigerator in order to prevent thousands of dollars worth of food from spoiling.

Forty-five-year-old Denise Prosperie-Fritch rode out the storm inside the restaurant with her family, who owns the Jolly Inn. She said the establishment is insured but it has only one or two days worth of diesel fuel left to keep the food cold.

Elizabeth Stelzer, a spokeswoman for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., said agents will be addressing the hardest-hit policyholders first. “Those homes with a tree through a wall, an exposed roof, or other claims in which the home has become uninhabitable are the priority,” she said.

Meanwhile, utilities started dealing with the task of restoring power.

Utility giant Entergy Corp. said 826,000 customers, mostly in Louisiana, were without power. A Royal Dutch Shell-owned refinery in Convent lacked power late Tuesday, as did the company's chemical plant in Geismar.

The power outages also brought down cellular and Internet service in parts of Louisiana.

Entergy did not have an estimate on when power may be restored, saying it could be weeks in some instances.

Gustav also created problems for the region's Gulf Coast oyster industry.

Mike Voisin, owner of an oyster processing plant in Houma and president of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, said Louisiana won't be producing oysters for at least a week to 10 days. It depends on how quickly officials can ensure oyster beds have not been contaminated by floodwaters carrying bacteria.

Similar closures were announced in Alabama and Mississippi as Gustav approached.