New claims for U.S. unemployment benefits (search) declined last week as the labor market toll from hurricanes Katrina and Rita continued to wane, the Labor Department said on Thursday.

First-time claims for state unemployment benefits fell to a seasonally adjusted 323,000 in the week ended Oct. 29 from an upwardly revised 331,000 in the prior week. Wall Street (search) had expected claims to nudge up to 330,000 from an originally reported 328,000.

There were about 18,000 new jobless claims linked to Gulf Coast (search) hurricanes Katrina and Rita last week, the Labor Department said, bringing the storms' cumulative unadjusted impact to 520,000 claims.

Hurricane Wilma in late October triggered another 1,400 claims in Florida last week.

The four-week moving average of claims, considered a clearer signal of the U.S. labor market because it flattens weekly volatility, declined for a fourth straight week to 350,500 from an upwardly revised 367,500 the prior week.

The number of people continuing to seek benefits after receiving a week of assistance fell to 2.82 million in the week ended Oct. 22, the latest period for which data is available.