Ike's financial toll tops $6 billion

Shrimpers and oystermen are dredging their boats from the muck. Coastal tourist areas that should be bustling are flattened. Power outages are keeping offices empty and restaurants closed from Texas into the Midwest.

It will take months or more to tally Hurricane Ike's financial toll, but one thing is clear: Almost nobody in its path escaped unscathed.

“Every industry has been impacted by this storm,” said Jeff Sjostrom, president of the Galveston Economic Development Partnership.

The storm carried hurricane-force winds as far north as Kentucky, which suffered its widest power outage in history, and driving rain clear into New England.

Risk Management Assessment Inc., which quantifies risks for insurance companies, estimated Ike's impact would land in the low end of the $6billion to $16 billion in insured losses.

In Houston, where the booming energy industry has kept the nation's fourth-largest city economically stable in a nationwide slump, the outlook was downright positive. The city's port survived with minimal damage, and the Gulf of Mexico's oil and gas production barely took a dent.

“I'd rather be in Houston right now than Wall Street,” said Leo Linbeck III, a Rice University professor.

Ike crashed ashore last weekend near the mouth of Galveston Bay, which produces about 15 million pounds of seafood each year. Shrimpers and oystermen there will practically have to start over. Even those who can salvage their trawlers will have to cope with the carpet of debris Ike dumped on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

Seafood wholesalers were hit hard, too. Ike destroyed the docks owned by Prestige Oysters Inc., one of the biggest harvesters in the Gulf, and slid its shrimp houses off their slabs. Owner Lisa Halili is wondering what to do with arriving immigrant fishermen who hold work visas but no longer have jobs.

More than half the oysters sold in the Eastern U.S. come from Louisiana and Texas. But Ike killed oyster reefs with waves of shocking saltwater, and officials say Ike's march through Galveston Bay will be catastrophic to an industry that generates more than $100million annually.

“This storm, nobody realizes, has totally wiped out the industry,” Halili said. “You can't buy an oyster reef. It takes hundreds of years to get them back.”

Representatives of Louisiana's $2.6 billion seafood industry are asking the state's congressional delegation for federal relief. Early estimates indicate the industry sustained up to $300 million in economic losses to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

Cattle ranchers lost entire herds in some Texas counties, and animals not among the 4,000 killed right away may still die from eating the grass or drinking water tainted by salt.

More than 11,000 workers have filed unemployment insurance claims in the wake of Ike, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

Ike slammed Galveston in the midst of a nearly decade-long economic renaissance. But about 80 percent of the island's structures are still standing, and Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said she is optimistic that crowds could pack the city's downtown again as soon as late October.

“We've had a lot of storms here,” she said. “People will come back.”