Led by imported oil, the US trade deficit widened in August to its third-highest level on record, the Commerce Department reported. Exports during the month set a record of $108.2 billion, but they were overwhelmed by imports of $167.2 billion. Meanwhile, the Labor Department said 75,000 new claims for unemployment benefits were filed last week due to the effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, pushing the national figure to 438,000 more than a month after the passage of the first of the storms. Economists had expected about 360,000 such claims.

Although it has no power to prosecute violations, the Federal Trade Commission was asked by the nation's attorneys general to join their investigations into "possible unlawful conduct" by the oil industry due to soaring fuel prices in the wake of the hurricanes. If violations of federal antitrust law are uncovered, the FTC can refer such cases to agencies authorized to press charges. Against that backdrop, however, the Energy Information Administration reported Thursday that crude oil production in the US last month dropped to its lowest level since the midpoint of World War II because of Katrina and Rita.

More than 22,000 people of the 270,000 people left homeless by Katrina remained in shelters Thursday, 72 hours before the federal deadline for finding new housing. But although that deadline probably won't be met, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, the new Federal Emergency Management Agency head, said no one would be forced to leave a shelter. As of midweek, most of these people were in 161 Red Cross sites in the Gulf Coast region. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, organizers of the annual Mardi Gras promised to keep the tradition going, even if it must be scaled back. The celebration generates $1 billion for the local economy and draws 1 million people.

Using international data, scientists have detetmined that 2005 is on track to be the hottest year on record, The Washington Post reported. Citing NASA climatologists, it said readings taken at 7,200 weather stations around the world point to an average global temperature one-tenth of a degree F. higher than the previous record, in 1988. However, at least one skeptic, Oregon state climatologist George Taylor, said the calculation is "mighty preliminary" and that ocean temperatures are being recorded by too few stations.

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