Record oil prices in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a drop in overall exports helped push the U.S. trade deficit to a record $66.1 billion in September, shattering the previous high of $60.4 billion set in February, the government said on Thursday.

The record trade gap was much wider than a mid-point forecast of $61.0 billion made by Wall Street economists.

The Commerce Department said the deficit widened 11.4 percent from August, the largest month-to-month jump since June 2004.

U.S. crude oil prices hit a record $70.85 per barrel following Katrina, which slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast on August 29, shuttering much of the region's oil-producing and refining capacity.

Oil import prices averaged a record $57.32 per barrel in September, helping push the trade deficit with OPEC countries to a record $9.1 billion, as U.S. exports to the oil-producing countries plummeted. The quantity of U.S. crude oil imports fell to the lowest level since February 2003, the Commerce Department said.

Despite the disruption to U.S. exports and U.S. Gulf Coast ports caused by Hurricane Katrina, and later Hurricane Rita, overall imports jumped 2.4 percent in September to a record $171.3 billion, led by the record value of petroleum imports.

Imports of food, animal feed and beverages and industrial supplies and materials also hit records and imports of services were near all-time highs, the Commerce Department said.

U.S. exports tumbled 2.6 percent to $105.2 billion, the biggest setback since the September 2001 attacks on the United States.

In addition to the Gulf port problems, a strike at aircraft maker Boeing took a big bite out of commercial aircraft exports, which fell $2.4 billion to $925 million. However, exports of autos and auto parts, as well as consumer goods, hit records.

The politically sensitive trade deficit with China hit a record $20.1 billion in September, as imports from that country rose to a record $23.3 billion.

Washington and Beijing reached a deal this week to rein in China's surging clothing and textile exports to the United States through 2008.