Then, he pledged: "We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives."
He promised "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen" and said: "Our goal is to get the work done quickly."
The president's shift from such bold rhetoric toward talk about the limits of federal involvement and the need for local and private-sector leadership is at least partly traceable to an unexpected revolt by congressional conservatives recently.
Led by the 100-plus members of the House Republican Study Committee, conservatives have insisted that any new spending for Katrina be offset by fresh budget cuts. Their suggestions include killing politically favored highway projects and delaying Bush's signature Medicare prescription drug benefit.
"We saw the White House engaging in an aggressive, multifront drive to rebuild the Gulf Coast, and we thought we ought to bring up the small matter of the bill," said committee Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.).
Bush aides dispatched Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten to strike a deal that included an administration promise to seek offsets for most new spending. That has given the White House Office of Management and Budget power to shape rebuilding that it did not have in the early going.
"It's put OMB in the driver's seat, and OMB is running a budget process, not trying to come up with a unified response to a national crisis," said one senior House Appropriations Committee staff member, who like most Capitol Hill staffers asked not to be identified.
More than budget politics, however, is at work in Bush's shift of approach.
As the full dimensions of the rebuilding task become clear, Democrats and some GOP leaders are calling for a degree of government involvement that the president almost certainly finds objectionable. The White House appears to be searching for a way to put primary responsibility for coordinating the work on state and local officials.
But by wiping out whole communities, Katrina created problems that even some Republicans argue cannot be handled by individuals and market mechanisms alone.
"Where once you had an operating society, now there's nothing -- no firetruck, no school, no grocery store to buy a loaf of bread," said Rep. Richard H. Baker (R-La.).
Such devastation creates a sort of chicken-and-egg problem, Baker said. "The question is, Who goes first?" If firefighters and police officers return to their communities first, they will have no equipment or food. If car dealers and retailers are the first, they will have no protection.
By offering tax breaks and encouraging local leaders to come up with rebuilding proposals, the White House implicitly hopes Gulf Coast residents solve the riddle themselves.
But Baker thinks that's unlikely. Last week, he proposed that Washington create a Louisiana Recovery Corp. aimed at making commitments to rebuild whole communities at once, so that residents have the assurances they need to invest there. The corporation would be able to borrow from the government and financial markets, buy up ruined areas and hire developers to rebuild them. Homeowners and local businesses could sell their storm-damaged properties to the firm or reserve spots in the rebuilt communities. If they refused to do either, the corporation could take the properties by eminent domain.
In a separate proposal, conservative Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) called for a Cabinet-level Gulf Coast Recovery and Disaster Preparedness Agency, which would be the conduit for all federal funds to the region. A companion agency with a board of mostly state and local officials would come up with the rebuilding plan.
"You need a single point where all federal funds go through so you have accountability," Gregg said.
White House officials have all but rejected the Gregg-Kennedy proposal and offered only a polite nod to the Baker plan.
The administration has "bought into the idea this should be a bottom-up thing," Gregg said. "The danger is confusion, inefficiency and huge bureaucratic frustration."
In the absence of a clear reconstruction plan, many residents are adrift.
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.