Life and health insurance groups are just starting to develop their response to the enormous devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.[@@]

The hurricane today flooded many miles of land along the Gulf Coast, forced some residents of New Orleans to climb into their attics to escape the water, and is still blowing with such fury that authorities are not able to assess the effects of the storm on property or human life.

WDSU-TV, a New Orleans television station, reported this afternoon that the storm was preventing authorities from trying to rescue people trapped inside buildings that had collapsed. CNN reporters talked about seeing families in some neighborhoods clinging to the roofs of flooded homes or huddling inside attics with little or no fresh air in an effort to stay above the water swirling around their homes, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune is writing about fears that a major levee breach may be letting water levels continue to rise.

Gulf Coast residents affected by the storm include thousands of agents and insurance company employees, and the storm also pounded insurance companies’ operations. At Pan-American Life Insurance Company, New Orleans, for example, the Web site was down at press time, and telephone calls to the company’s main number could not be completed.

The big national and regional carriers are mobilizing their emergency response teams.

“Our primary concern is our employees and their families,” says Harold Banks, a spokesman for Prudential Financial Inc., Newark, N.J.

The company’s regional community resources managers will be helping to coordinate efforts to locate employees, evaluate the needs of employees and company offices, and respond to local community needs, Banks says.

Many insurers have standing programs that match employees’ charitable contributions to relief organizations.

Prudential employees who want to act now can make contributions to the American Red Cross, Washington, or other relief groups and then seek matching contributions from Prudential, Banks says.

The Red Cross is on the Web at http://www.redcross.org