On Wednesday, retired schoolteacher Carolyn Pierce, 63, briefly returned to her white clapboard house at the corner of Gordon and Royal streets beside the huge levees around New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. It was the first time she had seen it since Katrina struck Aug. 29. About all that escaped the floodwaters were a pair of pennants pinned high on the living room wall that read "Pray for Work!" and "God Loves You."

Asked if she would move back to her old neighborhood and house, Pierce said: "I have no idea. I have no idea what we're supposed to do.

"I want a plan, but nobody seems to have a plan," she said. She stuffed a few books and a water-soaked dress in a green trash bag and left with her brother and a sister.

Lawmakers from the Gulf Coast praised the president for his repeated visits to the region, saying that when presented with specific problems — such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's recent refusal to provide businesses with trailers to house workers — he had made sure difficulties were ironed out. But they said new problems cropped up in place of the old.

Lawmakers lauded Bush's call for states and localities to decide their own futures, but they said they feared it would be an excuse for Washington to retreat from the region.

"It's not an either-or thing," said Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.). "You can be for local decision-making and for a federal effort that cut across the usual bureaucratic lines."

Bush is playing to similar mixed reviews in Washington, where fellow Republicans as well as policy analysts usually sympathetic to the administration said they had been baffled by an apparent lack of follow-through after the New Orleans speech.

Among the complaints: that after an initial rush of spending, the administration has been unable to make use of most of the billions of dollars it requested immediately after Katrina, and that it has offered only the sketchiest of accounts for what it has done with the money it has spent.

FEMA, which received almost $60 billion of the $62 billion in emergency funds, had "obligated" or assigned only $15.6 billion as of last Wednesday — less than a third of the money available — according to a weekly report the agency sends Congress.

"The president put out some very large ideas, but the administration isn't leading on them in any very public way," said Stuart M. Butler, vice president of domestic and economic policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. "There's been a general hands-off approach, which is disturbing."

Kemp, the former HUD secretary, agreed.

"Laissez-faire, Darwinian capitalism is not going to work here," Kemp said. "Markets do work, but they need the direction of government in situations like this."


Times staff writer Sam Howe Verhovek contributed to this report from New Orleans.