By and  on September 1, 2005

NEW YORK — Retail operations in the path of Hurricane Katrina could remain down for weeks or even months, though major chains made some headway Wednesday in reopening units where there was less devastation.

Stores also began taking steps to help displaced employees and aid relief efforts. Estimates of the damage from Katrina range up to $26 billion, which would make it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Gap Inc. said its 1,000 employees at downed stores were all accounted for; 50 units remained closed Wednesday, though there were 70 down the day before, and that employees would get financial help for housing. Gap is encouraging employees to donate to Red Cross relief efforts. For whatever they donate, the corporation triples the amount, so, for example, a $50 donation becomes $150.

Similarly, Limited Brands is providing financial support for housing and donated $300,000 to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. Limited's chairman and chief executive Leslie H. Wexner asked his associates to contribute.

Macy's two stores in New Orleans remained closed. Federated Department Stores Inc. spokesman Jim Slewzuski said there's been "virtually no communications" with the stores. "This is going to be a long haul. We are working hard to reach our associates."

"Nobody knows when the city is going to reopen," said Andrew Jennings, president of Saks Fifth Avenue, which has a downed store in New Orleans. He said the company has reached some of the store's 240 associates, but not all. "The most important thing is the welfare and well-being of our staff. The goods can always be replaced. People can't."

At the Colonial Mall Bell-Air in Mobile, Ala., only the food court was open on Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. People lined up 50 deep at one point to get hot meals, said Tim Nolan, Colonial's general manager. He said there was no looting at the mall, which on Wednesday was 100 percent open.

After food, phone and phone accessories were major sellers, but people were reportedly frustrated that they were unable to recharge cell phones.

Thomas H. Lowder, chairman and ceo of Colonial Properties, a regional developer, said, "We are fortunate that all of our employees are safe and that our properties withstood the hurricane's force with structural integrity. This was a devastating storm and our thoughts are with all who experienced loss."

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